Do we need a permanent COVID Monument?

Memorial Day in the US is the unofficial start of summer – celebrated with hot dogs, BBQs and gatherings with friends over a long weekend. This year’s celebrations will be even more special given the loosening of pandemic mask requirements and physical distancing protocols.

It is also a day on which those who died in active military service are remembered. Many people visit local war memorials or the final resting places of former military members to lay flowers to honor their lives.

This aspect of Memorial Day got me thinking about the monuments themselves and how they help us remember the past. It made me wonder – do we need a monument to commemorate those lost to COVID-19? Should there be a special one for healthcare workers who gave their lives in the service of others during this pandemic?

In doing research for this week’s #HCLDR chat, I was surprised to find a number of online memorials and a lack of plans for permanent COVID monuments.

Online COVID Memorials

There are many pages on Facebook that are dedicated to lost loved ones due to COVID-19. Too many to mention here. All are touching and moving in their own way. There are also several sites where you can write a few sentences about your friend/loved one and post a picture. Here is a sampling of sites I found:

  • Lost on the Frontline by The Guardian – an online interactive memorial to healthcare workers lost to COVID
  • Hamilton Remembers by the City of Hamilton Ontario
  • COVID Memorial by an individual who didn’t want COVID victims to be reduced to a statistic
  • RememberMe a book of remembrance set up by St. Pauls’s Cathedral for those lost to COVID in the UK

The RememberMe memorial has a fundraising page where the cathedral says it “hopes to create a new memorial that people can go through into a tranquil space, draw breath and take a moment to remember the many individuals, loved and cherished, who have died as a result of the pandemic. The memorial will be the first of its kind in St. Paul’s for over 150 years and will take 12 months to build.” To date £1.9 million has been raised.

Permanent Memorials

In my research, I found only a few stories about permanent COVID memorials:

This was a little surprising, but after reading this wonderful article by Emily Godbey I understood that it is in our nature to not want to commemorate times of illness and plague. We all want nothing more than to put it behind us.

Godbey writes about the few monuments that have been created to remember past pandemics like the bubonic plague: “In response, Europeans erected altarpieces, churches and free-standing monuments to the disease. Paintings highlighted St. Roch, who usually bears the unattractive swellings (buboes) caused by the plague on his inner thigh. The Virgin Mary and St. Sebastian appear in numerous works as supplication to the heavens for help from this deadly pandemic. Churches were raised as thanks to God for lifting the plague, as in Venice’s Il Redentore (“The Redeemer”), because of a plague outbreak in which almost a third of Venice’s citizens died. Likewise, in the 18th century, Klagenfurt, Austria, installed an impressive, elaborate Pestsaüle (Plague Column) in front of a church. Baden and Heiligenkreuz in Austria also responded with public plague monuments.”

Godbey writes about the few monuments that have been created to remember past pandemics like the bubonic plague: “In response, Europeans erected altarpieces, churches and free-standing monuments to the disease. Paintings highlighted St. Roch, who usually bears the unattractive swellings (buboes) caused by the plague on his inner thigh. The Virgin Mary and St. Sebastian appear in numerous works as supplication to the heavens for help from this deadly pandemic. Churches were raised as thanks to God for lifting the plague, as in Venice’s Il Redentore (“The Redeemer”), because of a plague outbreak in which almost a third of Venice’s citizens died. Likewise, in the 18th century, Klagenfurt, Austria, installed an impressive, elaborate Pestsaüle (Plague Column) in front of a church. Baden and Heiligenkreuz in Austria also responded with public plague monuments.”

Zachary Small wrote about the lack of memorials to the 1918 flu pandemic, compared to the number that exist for the HIV/AIDS crisis:

Traditional monuments have for centuries commemorated important political leaders and war veterans; rarely do governments dedicate memorials to victims of a disease. Despite 50 million people worldwide dying from an influenza virus a century ago, for instance, the 1918 flu pandemic is barely remembered in statues and stone.

Of the few examples that exist, many were only recently unveiled: a 2018 graveyard bench in Vermont and a 2019 garden plaque in New Zealand’s capital. Some historians have suggested that the lack of memorials contributed to a mass amnesia around the disease, which in turn may have contributed to a lack of preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic.

There is one disease calamity, however, that has been widely memorialized in recent generations in the U.S.: the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. There are several memorials around the country to victims of the virus; New York City even has two official commemorations situated only a few blocks away from each other in Manhattan.

But perhaps the most recognizable of them all is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, initially displayed on the National Mall in 1987 and covering a space larger than a football field, with 1,920 panels representing the dead. Artists are already taking inspiration from that generation of activism.

Do we need a COVID memorial?

I think Bayly Martin said it best in his article:

A failure to commemorate the 1918-19 pandemic silenced the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them disproportionately impacted by virtue of their gender or socio-economic status. The literature on war, memory, and post-conflict transition shows us that a failure to commemorate can hold long term implications for societal cohesion. But a failure to commemorate 1918-1919 also left the country ill-prepared to confront the next pandemic wave of 1957, and now the COVID-19 pandemic today. Memorialising the loss suffered as a result of COVID-19 should be a key area of government policy, for the good of society, and to ensure the hard-won lessons of this pandemic are not lost when the next one arrives.

I believe that we need a COVID-19 memorial – small local ones and larger national ones. There are lessons from this pandemic that we need to remember in the decades ahead. Like how this outbreak disproportionally affected the elderly and those who did not have good access to healthcare and healthy food; how governments around the world ignored the science until it was too late; how quickly a virus can spread in our connected world; and how quickly we worked together to create vaccines.

We need to remember the frontline healthcare workers who gave their lives helping to save others. To me this is combat of a different sort, and we should commemorate those brave souls who put themselves in danger to care for us and ended up losing their life to the same virus they were fighting.

We also need a place where people can gather and draw strength from others who have lost loved ones to this horrible pandemic.

Join the next #HCLDR Tweetchat on Tuesday June 1st at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) when we will discuss the following:

  • T1 How have you remembered or what memorials have you seen for those lost to COVID-19?
  • T2 If we were to memorialize COVID-19 in a monument or exhibit, what would you want it to commemorate and why? Everyone lost? Frontline Healthcare workers lost? Both? Separate?
  • T3 What ideas do you have for the design and location of a COVID-19 memorial? Should it be national or local? Permanent (stone) or transient (a forest)?
  • T4 What do you hope we remember from this pandemic 2-3 decades from now? What do you want a COVID monument to help us recall?

References

“In memoriam: Canada’s health workers who have died of COVID-19”, Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, 13 May 2021, https://nursesunions.ca/covid-memoriam/, accessed 30 May 2021

“In Memoriam: Healthcare Workers Who Have Died of COVID-19”, Medscape, 1 April 2020 (updated 12 May 2021), https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/927976, accessed 30 May 2021

“Lost on the Frontline”, The Guardian, August 2020 (updated regularly), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2020/aug/11/lost-on-the-frontline-covid-19-coronavirus-us-healthcare-workers-deaths-database, accessed 30 May 2021

“Remember Me”, St Paul’s Cathedral, May 2020 (updated regularly), https://www.rememberme2020.uk/, accessed 30 May 2021

“Arizona Nurses Association and Better Place Forests Partner to Recognize Fallen Nurses, Healthcare Workers in Arizona”, Tucson.com, 12 May 2021, https://tucson.com/business/arizona-nurses-association-and-better-place-forests-partner-to-recognize-fallen-nurses-healthcare-workers-in/article_e93c949d-3830-5578-8999-7c45e5fd6370.html, accessed 30 May 2021

Terasaski, Taiji. “Transcendients: 100 Days of COVID-19 and Memorial to Healthcare Workers – Artist Statement”, Japanese American National Museum, https://www.janm.org/exhibits/transcendients/covid-heroes, accessed 30 May 2021

Small, Zachary. “Hardly Any 1918 Flu Memorials Exist. Will We Remember COVID-19 Differently?”, NPR, 8 December 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/12/08/940802688/hardly-any-1918-flu-memorials-exist-will-we-remember-covid-19-differently, accessed 30 May 2021

Godbey, Emily. “Will there be a monument to victims of the coronavirus pandemic?”, The World, 1 December 2020, https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-12-01/will-there-be-monument-victims-coronavirus-pandemic, accessed 30 May 2021

Bell, Torsten. “The flu pandemic of 1918 can teach us to remember our dead”, The Guardian, 15 November 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/15/the-spanish-flu-pandemic-has-lessons-for-us-today, accessed 30 May 2021

Bayly, Martin. “Fatalism and an absence of public grief: how British society dealt with the 1918 flu”, LSE British Politics and Policy, 28 October 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/public-memory-1918-flu/, accessed 30 May 2021

Peterson, Andrew; Karlawish, Jason; Largent, Emily. “A monument to our monumental suffering can help America heal from this pandemic”, STAT News, 14 February 2021, https://www.statnews.com/2021/02/14/monument-to-monumental-covid-suffering-help-america-heal/, accessed 30 May 2021

Peters, Adele. “This new monument will be the first to remember the victims of COVID-19”, Fast Company, 11 September 2020, https://www.fastcompany.com/90548951/this-new-monument-will-be-the-first-to-remember-the-victims-of-covid-19, accessed 30 May 2021

Image Credit – Gomez Platero

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