Why do we commemorate wars but not pandemics?

We're used to public memorials dedicated to war but pandemics have also claimed millions of lives yet we see almost no commemorations dedicated to them. IDEAS examines the dynamics of public memory and why we choose what we'll remember.

'Across the world there are millions of dead. We can’t just let them disappear and be forgotten.'

A group of mask-wearers in Mill Valley, Calif., during the Spanish Flu of 1918. (Raymond Coyne/Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library/Public domain)

By Oliva Humphreys

In the early days of the pandemic, I was struck by an image I'd stumbled across: a group of mask-wearing people in Mill Valley, Calif. Their appearance was already becoming very familiar to me then, but this wasn't a news item — it was a grainy, black and white photo from 1919, taken during the Spanish Flu. One of the people wore a sign that read: "Wear a Mask or Go to Jail."

I had to do a double-take. Intrigued, I then came across pictures from the time of the Hong Kong Flu of 1957 — which I had never even heard of, despite a death toll of up to four million. This photo featured a classroom where big crosses had been drawn on half the desks to encourage social distancing — a mirror image of one of the strange new sights I was starting to notice all around me, at bus stops, on trains, in restaurants.

So why did these images give me such a jolt?

The word most used to describe COVID-19 has been "unprecedented," but these pictures were powerful reminders that we had, in fact, been here before, and not that long ago. So why do we appear to forget pandemics so quickly?

Pandemic amnesia

The past two years have been full of seismic shocks: surreal images of emptied city streets, huge shifts in the way we live our lives, previously unthinkable occurrences such as the Olympics being postponed — it all feels unforgettable. And yet if we do pass on the memories of COVID-19 beyond the next generation or two — through history textbooks, memorials, cultural artifacts — we'll be bucking a historic trend.

Times Square, New York City, void of cars and pedestrians as the pandemic struck, March 22, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One stark example of what one could call pandemic amnesia is that, while there are over 3,000 monuments to the First World War in the United Kingdom alone, there isn't a single public memorial to the 228,000 Britons who died of the Spanish Flu.

If you ask Americans about the most important events of the 20th century, the Spanish Flu is very rarely mentioned — despite the fact that more Americans died of it than perished in the First World War, Second World War — and the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.

"As societies, we tend to remember wars, and we tend to remember great political struggles," said Bill Hirst, who teaches psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York.

"Natural disasters are much lower down the list — they don't figure very much at all actually."

A nurse and patient in the influenza ward of the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., November 1918. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress/The Associated Press)

Why? One reason, Hirst argues, is that for an event to be remembered by a society in the longer term, it needs to serve a purpose, to be part of the story which that society wants to tell about itself — a function pandemics rarely fulfil.

It is not usually in the interest of the powerful to have people remember a pandemic, or think too much about it: unlike war, pandemics don't feature heroic deaths; instead, they reveal the flaws in our societies starkly and painfully, and expose all sorts of uncomfortable truths about social inequality — as well as the arbitrary ways just whose work is seen as truly essential, and whose isn't.

If there are lessons to be learned, they are probably expensive ones that the powerful are reluctant to put into practice: hiring more nurses, providing greater capacity in hospitals, improving sick pay, bettering living conditions. It's much more convenient for governments to just quietly let it all be forgotten — which many citizens are more than willing to do, given how painful and sad the experience is for most.

Nurses protested outside the Las Garzas Presidential Palace in Panama City, Oct. 27, 2021, to demand that the government provide permanent labour contracts after nearly two years of coping with COVID-19 cases. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

After each pandemic, there's a tension between, on the one hand, needing to pass these stories on and needing the victims to be remembered; and on the other, a very understandable, basic need to move on with our lives, forget difficult times, and think about happier things.

The way we live is only likely to hasten the rate of pandemics in the coming decades, so it's now increasingly urgent that we learn the lessons from each pandemic, and break out of our collective habit of quickly sweeping them under the carpet.

'The more walls the better'

And there do seem to be signs of resistance towards falling into the historical habit of pandemic amnesia this time around: in striking contrast to the relative absence of memorial projects during the 1918 Pandemic or subsequently, there are innumerable memorial projects and memorials now underway across the globe — from a "world memorial" to victims of all pandemics in Uruguay, to the "endless, erasing" memorial by Canada-based artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; from official, government-sanctioned monuments to illegal memorial projects begun by defiant citizens.

One of these "guerrilla memorials" can be found on the wall of St. Thomas's Hospital in London, U.K., where volunteers have painted over 150,000 hearts — one for each person whose death certificate mentions COVID-19. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby visited the National Covid Memorial Wall, April 20, 2021, in London, England. The wall was created by bereaved families without municipal or institutional permission and the group is now campaigning to make it a permanent site of remembrance. (Chris J Ratcliffe For Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice/Getty Images)

Started by the campaign group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, it has in turn inspired the founding of similar walls in other countries. For Fran Hall, who lost her husband to the virus in 2021, and who painted hundreds of the hearts at St Thomas's, we all have a duty to remember its victims:

"Across the world there are millions of dead. We can't just let them disappear and be forgotten. So the more walls the better."

Guests in this episode:

Astrid Erll is a professor of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany, and founder of the Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform.

Fran Hall is a former funeral director and spokesperson for Covid19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

William Hirst is Malcolm B. Smith Chair & Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research.

Gabriel Scally is a public health physician and Visiting Professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol.

Laura Spinney is a science journalist and the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.

*This episode was produced by Olivia Humphreys, with help from Greg Kelly. Sound Design by Claire Crofton and Olivia Humphreys. Special thanks to Covid19 Bereaved Families for Justice, and to all those whose voices are featured in the documentary.

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