We need to Memorialise the Pandemic

Image: George Lewis Romain/The NHS Spitfire project (web/insta/donate here)

Back in May, between lockdown #2 and #3, I nearly cried in line at the grocery store. All it took was spotting a headline that noted that the 78,113-strong crowd at the annual ANZAC Day clash between the Collingwood and Essendon AFL teams had broken the record for largest crowd in the world since the pandemic began. At the moment that Indian hospitals were running out of oxygen, Melbourne had somehow, against all the odds, managed to temporarily eliminate COVID-19. The nearly-tears were tears of relief, of gratitude at our good fortune as well as grief for the lost time and lost lives.

As I write this, Melbourne has just emerged from its sixth lockdown after another outbreak. We spent longer in lockdown than any other city in the world. It was interminable and terrifying. The prohibition on seeing friends, the limit of one hour outside the house for exercise, the mandatory masks, the curfew and the 5km radius all contributed to a leaden and ever-present sense that this would never be over. But it also ironically felt like I was part of something much, much bigger than myself. It’s a big thing for a historian to say, but maybe it even felt like what I went through was part of history.

I had dinner last week with a friend, face to face, in a restaurant. What a luxury! It was lovely to see her, but there were so many mildly intrusive markers of pandemic and governmental oddness. The struggle to sync our federal digital vaccine certificate with our state check-in app. The strange rules about masks — off outside, on inside, off at tables, making for a strange and surely pointless five-second mask-wear between the door and our seats. Residual background anxiety, a sort of aroused sense of threat, from seeing so many people congregating in public. I was beginning to feel what another friend would later call “normality anxiety” — a sense that even though we were ‘returning to normal,’ something was still very wrong.

My friend and I agreed that the restrictions had eased too quickly for comfort, not because we wanted to stay in our houses but because adapting to the changes requires energy. I was enervated by never seeing my friends, and now I’m exhausted from catching up with them, but I still have to work a five-day week. We’ve spent two years doing nothing but working, and now we need to reconnect with the world, but we’re apparently not going to get any time or energy allowance left over to do that work of reconnection. As Marie Le Conte put it so succinctly, “I don’t want to work”. I want to recover.

To add insult to injury, my employer has already started contemplating my return to the dreaded, deadening panopticon of the office once we hit 90% vaccination rates. The email says:

…attendance at the office remains a requirement, acknowledging the intrinsic value of engaging face to face with teams and colleagues. The Guidance Note sets the assumption that full time workers will return three days per week to their office.

I don’t want to work. I don’t want to go back to the office. I want to relax, recuperate, to bask in the relief of lockdown ending, to rejoice in my newly-reopened social world, to grieve the lost time and lives. I want to make a gargantuan, joyous, calamitous sound, akin to the cannons and bells at the end of the 1812 Overture, and then take a month off.

These feelings haven’t receded with the tide case numbers and restrictions; that tide has left jetsam and detritus behind it. In the UK the phrase ‘tsunami of mental illness’ made headlines back in 2020. Another prominent UK psychiatrist has likened the psychological effects of the Pandemic to the Second World War. We are grappling with loss and grief on a scale that very few people now alive in the developed world have had to grapple with in their lifetimes. So why aren’t we celebrating it properly, or planning to memorialise it?

War and Pestilence

We seem to have already defaulted to war commemoration as a way of representing the present crisis. Consider the brilliant German government ads, shot, edited and scored like a war veteran interview in a memorial documentary, in which the joke hinges on the fact that these apparent heroes actually did very little to deserve our thanks.

In the UK, the Second World War is often brought up in discussions of COVID. It makes sense; the War was probably the last time so many people were all united by their relationship to a historical disaster of such scale. It’s most obviously encapsulated by the NHS Spitfire, which perfectly combined two iconic British institutions of the mid-century — the war effort and the welfare state. The 99-year old war veteran Tom Moore, who raised US$30m for the NHS by doing 100 laps of his garden in lockdown (and was knighted for his efforts) was another great example.

The connection between the NHS and the war effort is appropriate. Both soldiers and front-line health workers put their lives in danger in service of the nation, and neither of them really had a choice in the matter. Both of them did so for a democratic vision of a state that gave equal care and consideration to all of its citizens. If one is worthy of heroic commendation, then both are. “Clap for our Carers” drew on traditions of war commemoration and could become a model for annual commemoration of the sacrifice of health workers.

It’s fitting that the record-breaking crowd at the Essendon-Collingwood game was for a war memorial day. ANZAC Day is a war memorial holiday that has become Australia’s de facto national day over the last 30 years. The Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) opted to commemorate ANZAC Day under lockdown with a “light up the dawn” campaign asking people to stand in their driveways holding a candle, similar to the example of “Clap for our Carers” from the UK.

If we’re already thinking about COVID in war terms, it should be but a small nudge to properly mark the struggles of 2020 and 2021.

We should remember this pandemics like we remember wars

Like many other historians during the last two years I found myself wondering about the ’flu pandemic of 1918–1921. It’s shocking that the “Spanish Flu” has been so totally overshadowed by WWI in our collective memories. It killed almost as many people as the War and lasted almost as long, but it was rediscovered under lockdown as a way to explain our strange circumstances or in an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty give us an inkling of what the path out might be.

The Black Plague left its mark on the very few texts we have from the 14th century. The Vision of Piers Plowman still calls it the “pestilence tyme” nearly thirty years later, and the Decameron chronicles the stories told by Italian nobles in self-enforced rural lockdown. But our Flu memoirs have been obscured by endless war memorials. There are already a few ‘pandemic texts’, chief among them being Bo Burnham’s Inside, but otherwise the impulse seems to be to forget rather than remember.

A COVID Memorial Day could be a thank you to the frontline carers who saved us. Perhaps, in time, with enough attention paid to their self-sacrificing work, we might even start to give health care workers the sorts of financial compensation they deserve, and stop treating their jobs and the system that employs them as a disposable asset or luxury for the wealthy.

A COVID Memorial Day might claw back some space for the res publica or the common wealth. It could perhaps revive our sense that there is a collective world that we all inhabit and that ties us together, and that our fates are collectively entangled regardless of personal circumstances.

A COVID Memorial Day could also be a recognition of the toll the pandemic took on us all: grief and loss of life and health, certainly, but also isolation, disconnection and separation from loved ones. It could be a celebration of the togetherness we had to sacrifice to bring it under control, a day off work to have picnics and parties, go to plays and films and art galleries and play sport — all the things we lost, albeit temporarily. And it could be a day for both grief and happiness at the same time, with none of the discomfort of the arguments about whether memorial days celebrate or commemorate war.

And lastly, a COVID Memorial Day could help us flesh out the big grey nothing time of lockdown, and secure the hardships of 2020 and 2021 in a positive fashion in our memories so they don’t feel like lost or wasted years.

After all, remembering is not really about the past, it’s about the present. If we’re going to need to deal with a tsunami of mental health problems, we need to remember why we are facing it in the first place.

If we are mindful of the opportunity, the memory of COVID-19 has the potential to unite us across national, class, gender and racial boundaries, and for once there’s no ‘enemy’ to discreetly erase from the memorial services once the war is over. It could be like Armistice Day but with less complicated politics.

And most importantly in the short term, it can be another day off work, for rest, recovery, and remembrance — all of which we desperately need.

I hope one day I’ll stand in a grocery queue and tear up at the sight of a headline about an AFL game played in front of a packed crowd for COVID Day, tears this time of pride in our health system, gratitude to our health care workers, and relief and joy at life regained.

This piece is a significant revision of a piece originally published on May 11, 2021. That piece contained the phrase “Melbourne had somehow, against all the odds, beaten Coronavirus with nothing but two prolonged lockdowns.” It also had the peak of infections as 687 cases on one day, as opposed to the new record of 2265. How fast COVID moves, and how wrong I was!

The NHS Spitfire Project

In writing the original version of this piece, I reached out to George L. Romain to use his magnificent image of the NHS Spitfire above. George very kindly agreed, and also pointed out that you can still donate to the NHS Spitfire project:

“We are attempting to completely cover our photo-reconnaissance blue Spitfire PL983 ‘L’ in hand written names! For us to accomplish this we need your support, as the names we are hand writing onto the Spitfire will be nominated by you! It can be your own name or that of a loved one, a member of your family, a friend or a kind neighbour. You can now become a part of the NHS Spitfires story by nominating a name to be hand written on the aircraft’s airframe.

Each name nominated will also help us together as a nation say thank you to the NHS by contributing to the NHS Charities Together (Registered Charity Number 1186569) To nominate a name you simply need to visit our JustGiving page and donate a minimum of £10 along with the name of the person and the reason for the nomination in the donation comment (instructions for donations included in JustGiving page story). We will be adding the names throughout the Summer and sharing updates via our social media pages as the blue outer-surface of the Spitfire slowly begins to be covered in the names of our nations local heroes!”

I’m a firm believer in universal healthcare, and I wish governments would fund it fairly. When they won’t, citizens have to step into the breach. This is a very worthy cause. If you feel you can, please donate.

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