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Mark Honigsbaum: History is a mighty weapon in the struggle with Covid grief

Friday 12 March 2021

Look to past plagues and wars, and how humanity has commemorated the fallen. Collective amnesia has long been a friend to the virus, and we should not make the error of forgetfulness

In a recurring lockdown dream my father sits at his desk, illuminated by a half-light. My father died in 2004 aged 77 but in my dream it is as if he has merely been absent for a while and has now returned. This absence is never explained however, and when I awake his presence is palpable.

Whether or not we have lost a close family member or friend to Covid-19, we are all haunted by ghosts now: the postman permanently missing from his round, the shop assistant who will never again ask, “is that all?” or – in my case – my absent but eerily present father.

A year into this dreadful pandemic, the coronavirus has left a void in all our communities, reminding us of griefs present and past. It is a vacuum that cries out to be filled. But how can we commemorate grief on such a scale? And what sort of memorial might make sense of our collective suffering and what Joan Didion calls “the unending absence that follows”?

A little over a hundred years ago, when a similarly devastating pandemic swept the British Isles, no one thought to ask these questions. The Spanish influenza pandemic, wrote the Times in 1920, “came and went, a hurricane across the green fields of life… leaving behind it a toll of sickness and infirmity which will not be reckoned in this generation”.

It is unthinkable that the coronavirus pandemic, which at time of writing has claimed the lives of more than 120,000 Britons, might suffer a similar fate. Unlike the Spanish flu, which was overshadowed by the First World War, there is no war raging in Europe today. And thanks to the weekly Downing Street coronavirus briefings, no one can be ignorant of the mounting death count. Unlike in 1918, when there was no chief medical officer to share the grim statistics with us – and no television or social media to amplify them – we have followed this “toll of sickness and infirmity” in real time.

At present, the proposals for marking the pandemic include an online book of remembrance at St Paul’s Cathedral and a Forest of Memories, with a tree planted for every life lost in the UK because of Covid-19. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is also planning to plant trees in a new public garden at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, 33 for every London borough hit by Covid.

There have been calls for a monument to Captain Sir Tom Moore in Westminster and the government is also reported to be considering a monument or memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. But monuments and memorials serve very different purposes. As the art critic Arthur Danto reminds us: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember and build memorials so that we shall never forget… Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends.”

Danto was writing about the Vietnam War memorial which, unusually for war memorials, names all 58,000 who died or went missing in the conflict. By contrast, the Cenotaph – from the Greek kenotaphion, meaning “empty tomb” – makes no reference to the individual soldiers who perished fighting the Germans in the First World War. Instead, it symbolises all the “glorious dead” and, arguably, is all the more powerful for it.

But what of an invisible enemy that has bathed the nation in the opposite of glory? As Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor for North West England, tweeted on the day that the US president Joe Biden held a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington DC to mark the 500,000th American victim of the pandemic: “The UK has proportionately lost more of its citizens, no bell ringing, no lowered flags, no remembrance. No accountability… yet”.

For Afzal and other critics of the government’s botched pandemic response, such as Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, it is too soon to talk about memorials or monuments. Instead, the group, which represents 2,500 people who have lost a relative to the coronavirus, would like to see a judge-led public inquiry on the model of Hillsborough and Grenfell.

In particular, they want to interrogate Boris Johnson’s promise last May that the government would have a “world beating” test-and-trace system in place by the summer and examine key government decisions, such as the discharge of elderly people back into care homes in April. According to Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association: “A full public inquiry is the only way to determine how effectively public money has been deployed, and what needs to change to ensure we can be best prepared for any future pandemic and properly safeguard the health of the nation.”

In November campaigners beamed messages from bereaved family members onto the Palace of Westminster. Yet the prime minister has refused to meet the group and, so far, just 205,000 people have signed a petition demanding he set a date for the inquiry. Indeed, judging by the latest opinion polls, which put the Conservatives ahead of Labour, it’s as if, in the rush to get vaccinated and resume “normal” life, the British public has already forgiven Johnson’s earlier ineptitude and serial blunders.

Or perhaps we are simply incapable of imagining the magnitude of the suffering? At time of writing, in excess of 2.5 million people have died of Covid-19 worldwide. But as Albert Camus writes in his novel, The Plague (1947), deaths of this order are “just a mist drifting through the imagination”.

Another reason, as Jonathan Freedland recently observed in the Guardian, is that despite our efforts to anthropomorphise the virus, and for all Johnson’s appeal to military metaphors, SARS-Cov-2 is an “invisible and faceless” foe. The pandemic also lacks a conventional narrative arc, with “clear heroes and villains”. Nor, with the important exception of the Chinese, has the Covid-19 pandemic seen the stigmatisation of particular ethnic, religious or social groups.

This was not the case with the 14th Century Black Death, which was blamed on Jews, or HIV/Aids, which, despite being widely sexually transmissible, was initially branded a “gay plague”. And it was precisely because homosexuals were shunned and barred from schools and places of work and worship that activists insisted on recalling the injustice by marching on Washington to unveil the Aids Memorial Quilt.

Covid-19, like the 1918 Spanish flu, is not stigmatising in that way. Nor does it lend itself to moralising. Nonetheless, there is an urgent moral story to be told. That story begins with the recognition that Black people and other ethnic minority patients have been dying of Covid-19 at three to four times the rates of whites. It should go on to ask why it is that NHS health workers – one fifth of whom hail from BAME backgrounds – have proved so much more vulnerable to Covid-19 than health workers in other countries.

This investigative narrative would proceed to look at why, despite Matt Hancock’s promise to throw a “protective ring” around the elderly, UK care homes registered in excess of 66,000 deaths between March and June 2020, giving the UK the second worst record in Europe. And it would examine why Britain was so slow to order personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors and other frontline health workers, such as Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a 53-year-old consultant urologist who died of Covid in April shortly after an issuing an appeal to the government on Facebook for “appropriate PPE”.

We need to remember these stories if we are to learn from our mistakes and prevent them happening again. A good example is the plaque in Pukehau National War Memorial Park, in Wellington, New Zealand, commemorating the country’s experience of Spanish influenza. A rare example of a memorial to the pandemic, the plaque features a graphic representation of the flu’s impact on New Zealand’s north and south islands and acknowledges “the service” of the health workers and many volunteers who risked their lives to care for their communities. 

More than 9,000 New Zealanders, including 2,500 Maoris, perished in the pandemic, in part because New Zealand failed to act as decisively as Australia, which in October 1918 imposed a strict maritime quarantine on troops returning from the war in Europe. The plaque is the brainchild of Geoffrey Rice, a historian who has written several books about the Spanish flu’s impact on New Zealand, and was unveiled by the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, on 6 November 2019 – 55 days before the first report of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. 

To date, New Zealand has recorded just 26 deaths from Covid-19 and has largely eliminated community transmission of the coronavirus – evidence of how the memory of past pandemics can mobilise action in the present. As we look to the social, emotional and cultural challenges that lie ahead of us in the new landscape, we should make full use of the tools of history and resist the amnesiac trance that is the virus’s best hope of retaining its long-term grip upon us.

Mark Honigsbaum is a medical historian and author of The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19 (WH Allen, 2020) and Living With Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 (Macmillan, 2009).

Photograph Getty Images