What do communities choose to remember, and what do they choose to forget? The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million people between 1918 and 1920, the most vulnerable aged between 20 and 40. The first world war killed 17 million. And yet the pandemic had almost no place in the collective memory. There are no significant memorials to it, no famous body of literature around it. Laura Spinney, in her book Pale Rider, suggests that it was because the Spanish flu was global in scale and so confined in time – most of the deaths occurred within a few months in 1918 and 1919 – that the catastrophe did not take on a similar kind of significance to the first world war. The war, too, may have seemed more translatable into tragic narrative – a self-evidently manmade disaster, as opposed to the “natural” catastrophe of disease. Though if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is the extent to which the disease is shaped as much by politics, culture and economics as by “nature”.
The Covid-19 pandemic is clearly quite different from Spanish flu. There are already calls to raise permanent memorials, including by St Paul’s Cathedral in London. This is absolutely understandable. People have put their mourning for loved ones on hold, through necessity. The normal rituals that help to channel grief – those rites, religious or otherwise, that involve the encircling, physical presence of family and friends – have been snatched away. There is a deep, human yearning for something tangible, something that people can gather around. And there is a good-hearted desire to honour those many, in different walks of life, who put themselves in danger to save, or serve, others.
Yet caution is desirable. As the months roll on, and the world faces more and more bleak anniversaries, it is clear that there is much to digest about this catastrophe. Lockdowns in the UK may be easing, supposedly for the last time. But the pandemic will go on in all kinds of ways even when the intensive care units have emptied out: Britain, and much of the world, will be dealing with its own form of long Covid for years to come. There are reckonings yet to happen, too. It is clear that there has been, in the UK and in many other countries, suffering and deaths that could have been averted had better decisions been taken.
Rushing to erect sculptures in stone and bronze is premature when the events are so raw. Some of the best recent memorials have been evanescent. One thinks of Jeremy Deller’s haunting We’re Here Because We’re Here, which marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with the appearance of silent young men, dressed as first world war soldiers, in public places. The best permanent memorials have been highly allusive and open-ended, such as Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial for Vienna, its form cast from inward-facing library shelves. For the time being, let commemorations of this pandemic be impermanent, delicate and transitory. They need be no less heartfelt, meaningful – and memorable – for that.