One day in the future, we'll file into a stadium, heads filled with anxiety about the game instead of catching Covid-19.
The vaccinated crowd will take a moment to remove their hats and bow their heads. Players will impatiently rock back and forth, ready to take the field in this moment of silence.
It won’t be perfectly silent, but it will be quite enough to prompt reflection.
We’ll be asked to remember the hundreds of thousands of people we lost to a microscopic virus that, through our own negligence and arrogance, ended countless lives.
But then again, we might not.
It’s not that the United States doesn’t know how to remember tragedy. Each year on September 11th, two blue lights surge from Ground Zero, a tribute to the 2,977 people who died on that day in 2001. Their names are engraved at the memorial site. The names of all victims are read aloud in a ceremony carried live by multiple news channels. The phrase "Never forget" is forever associated with the terrorist attack.
But when it comes to pandemics, we have short memories. As President Barack Obama recalls in his 2020 memoir A Promised Land, the last pandemic to hit the US – the swine flu – killed more than 12,000 people in the US between 2009 and 2010. Yet, “news that the pandemic had abated by mid-2010 didn’t generate headlines,” Obama writes.
Swine flu didn’t turn out to devastate the world in the same way Covid-19 has. But it’s not just the size of the pandemic that determines how it’s memorialized. When historians look back at the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic – an event that killed more people than World War I – they see little evidence that it remained in America’s cultural consciousness for long after.
“The master narrative of 1918 [flu] is that it was forgotten,” says David Jones, a professor in Harvard’s history of science department. This theory can be traced to historian Alfred W. Crosby’s book America’s Forgotten Pandemic, first published in the 1970s as Epidemic and Peace, but Jones says it holds up.
“It really does seem to be the case that there was a cause of economic recovery and a social forgetting of what had happened,” he continues.
Given our well-documented history of social forgetting, it's imperative for our governmental leaders to strengthen this tragedy in our national memory — its failings, its ugly politicization, the heroic work of medical workers, the shared sacrifice of everyone who put others before their own needs, all of it — to ensure we remember. Because there are surely going to be more pandemic threats on these shores.
May 28 — It's the day in 2020 that Covid-19 deaths hit 100,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. "Reaching the milestone of 100,000 persons lost in such a short timeframe is a sobering development and a heart-breaking reminder of the horrible toll of this unprecedented pandemic," the agency commented in a statement that broke the news.
We need to establish May 28 of every year as a Covid-19 Memorial Day. As you'll read below, grief leadership — when elected leaders guide the public in that critical process — is a valuable strategy for cementing those memories and ensuring we're prepared for future challenges.
It would literally take an act of Congress to create such a nationally recognized day. The last time this occurred was in 1983 to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And even that took years of campaigning against resistance from the Republican Party, and a song by Stevie Wonder, to see it established. A hopeful heart might wonder if the establishment of a Covid-19 Memorial Day would find bipartisan support in both houses before being welcomed at the White House.
Pandemics tend to end in far less dramatic fashion than they arise. The preferred end would happen due to the rollout of a vaccine which brings the pathogen under control and saves lives. The other option is allowing the virus to burn through the population, killing as many susceptible victims as possible and leading to innumerable amounts of death and suffering.
With a vaccine rolling out, normality (or some version of it) may return, albeit slowly.
“It is gradual,” says Nükhet Varlik, a historian at the University of South Carolina who studies disease and public health in the Ottoman Empire. “I’m personally very curious to see how we will remember this pandemic in the future,” she adds, because there’s also the chance that as normal life returns, we may watch this pandemic disappear into history.
“It's now an incredibly monumental event in our lives," Varlik says. "But at the same time, the global pandemic for influenza was as bad for when it happened, and it was so quickly forgotten. This is a form of trauma that humans have a tendency to erase from memory."
There is hope that coronavirus may be the pandemic that helps us break that pattern. Maybe we will have a moment of silence before our first major sports games, a day where we remember those who died in overflowing hospitals, or monuments that both allow the country to grieve and force us to remember how we got here. These acts aren't’ superficial, but are part of the process of grieving and remembering.
To do it, we’ll have to develop a new pandemic mindset, Varlik says. We’ll grieve, collectively acknowledge who experienced the worst of this pandemic, and finally recognize that this could easily happen again in our lifetimes.
Trauma and memory
Joshua Morganstein is a psychiatrist at The Uniformed Services University. He tells Inverse that people who live through disasters like genocide, natural disasters, or destructive events, tend to deal with “long-tail” consequences for years afterward.
If pandemics are rife to create traumatic experiences (Morganstein says they can, but more on that later), how could we possibly forget how devastating they really are?
It’s partially because the pandemic has had drastically different effects on different types of people.
Most of us will experience grief because the pandemic has caused a disruption. We’ve gained a sense of uncertainty, lost routines, jobs, and a sense of normalcy. I asked him if coronavirus might leave us with a sense of collective trauma. For most of us who could ride out the pandemic at home, it will be more like collective grief, says Morganstein – a deep internal sadness for the people and lives we’ve lost.
It’s an open psychological wound but perhaps not a bleeding one: “The word trauma really implies that someone has had a real or threatened exposure to real or threatened death, serious injury or assault,” he says.
“There's certainly people who have been exposed to, what would be considered trauma. First responders, healthcare workers, perhaps people who have been ill faced or potential death around this.”
The people on the front lines – healthcare workers, people of color who are disproportionately likely to die from Covid-19, essential workers forced to work in unsafe conditions – will bear the brunt of the trauma of the event. Often, those are people who are also left out of the historical record, and they’ll remember the worst of this pandemic.
Even though the 1918 pandemic was “forgotten” by history, it wasn’t forgotten by people whose bodies and communities were devastated by the disease. Families that lost loved ones to the 1918 flu called their struggles “the torments of hell.”
Pension files from British nurses who served on the front lines of the 1918 pandemic note that nurses were plagued with physical and psychological injuries as a result of their service. A study on the pension files of six of those nurses showed that two had mental breakdowns at work in 1920 and 1921, and were institutionalized during different periods.
All of the six received disability pensions from the Ministry of Pensions for ailments ranging from “exhaustion psychosis” to “debility” due to the stress and strain of service.
By the time these women were dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic, the rest of society had moved on.
Jones notes that this is less the case in Europe, where the pandemic and the physical destruction of the World War contributed to a sense of “malaise and depression.” But in the US, society at large seemed ready to put the pandemic behind.
“Spring of 1919, both the war was over and the pandemic was over, an American society was really happy to move on and get back to a better life,” he says.
Not having direct memory of those consequences first comes due to privilege – an ability to work from home, or not having to grapple with the virus in a life-or-death situation. As time passes, the whole of society can lose touch with the consequences of such events if we’re not aware of other people’s suffering. And eventually, no one will remember it first-hand.
“To some degree, people don't want to believe that something that awful could happen again, especially if it's never happened in their own lifetime,” Morganstein says. “So it doesn't represent something real and tangible that people can remember.”
Historical pandemics can only prepare us if we remember how bad they actually were and recognize the pain borne by others. That pain isn’t distributed equally across society. And that is still the case during the Covid-19 pandemic, which means we are running the risk of forgetting the toll it has taken, and the missteps that brought us here.
“A lot of the deaths have been confined to certain populations,” Jones points out. “And so it still is possible for lots of people in this country to still claim that the pandemic is a hoax, and it's exaggerated, and that it's no big deal.”
“For the many people whose lives have been touched but not disrupted. I think it will be quite easy to get back to business as usual.”
Will we remember Covid-19?
We don’t have to fall into the trap of leaving those most affected to grapple with the aftermath while the rest of society moves on. Other countries with more recent and devastating pandemic memories have at least learned some lessons about prepping for pandemics.
Morganstein and Jones point to countries like Singapore and Taiwan, both upended by the SARS epidemic. These aren’t perfect comparisons to the US, but each learned how serious disease outbreaks could become if left unchecked.
Singapore eventually dealt with 238 cases of SARS and took 11 weeks to break the chain of transmission through contact tracing and quarantine. A version of that health response system sprung into action again when Covid-19 hit Singapore. It helped the island control the virus, but it wasn't absolutely perfect.
"[SARS] caused Taiwan to make decisions, very differently because to them, [the threat of disease] was real. It was something they just lived through," Morganstein says.
In the US, there are still some who don’t see the virus as a big deal or have been sheltered from its worst effects. But most people have borne some costs of a global health tragedy for the first time in their memories.
Now we all have memories of wearing masks in public and social distancing. As Covid-19 deaths surge — last week, more than 4,000 people died in a single day, a new record — in a second year of a pandemic, everyone is being forced to deal with this reality even longer. The effect on the economy is also brutal. The December 2020 federal jobs report, released last week, shows the U.S. economy shed 140,000 jobs in December, the most since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
In these ways, Covid is very different from 1918, when the virus was abated far quicker and didn’t force society at large to reshape itself around the virus for prolonged periods.
“Nationally, the epidemic smeared out from September 1918 probably until February 1919, he says. Nationwide, the whole thing ran for six months, but you didn't see anything like now with these multiple waves,” says Jones.
These are not experiences we want to repeat, so we may be poised to learn from Covid-19. The U.S. can achieve this by acknowledging the collective grief of society, and in particular, the trauma endured by certain populations. We need to show “grief leadership,” Morganstein says.
Grief leadership is a process where prominent individuals in a community – politicians, pastors, it can really be anyone – step forward to acknowledge the losses we’ve faced and set intentions for the future.
The term itself, he explains, comes from a process coined after the 1985 crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285 – still the deadliest aviation accident to happen in Canada as of 2020. The plane crashed 3,000 feet beyond the runway Gander Airport in Newfoundland, killing 248 passengers, all soldiers, and eight crew, all U.S. soldiers.
An army report in 1987 documented the grieving process for those families, who convened at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and Dover Airforce Base to say goodbye several times over the course of months.
The report hails the value of “grief leadership,” a process where leaders were encouraged to expressing sorrow, fear, and sadness while also continuing to do their jobs, and creating structured ways to “facilitate mourning” like regular memorial services.
“Communities in which effective grief and leadership was utilized recovered more quickly functioned better, and had improved well being,” says Morganstein. They were also, as the 1987 report demonstrates, willing to learn from mistakes and prepare for the next tragedy.
It’s clear we will need to utilize effective grief leadership to contextualize the impact of coronavirus. It’s less clear what society will learn from the experience. For once, different factions are going to have to agree on what coronavirus taught us if we’re going to take lessons from it.
As a historian, Varlik hopes the pandemic doesn’t fade into our memory as an isolated event but becomes an example of a larger process. We need to start thinking like pandemics could happen all the time, just as scientists have warned us for decades.
“This will happen again.”
It’s an example of what happens when humans encroach on animal habitats, when we ignore the effects of climate change, downplay the seriousness of disease, and overlook historical inequality that led to disproportionate numbers of deaths from Covid-19.
To be better prepared when the next one comes along, we have to recognize that this pandemic wasn’t a fluke. “For the majority of the population, a pandemic wasn’t even something they have heard of before,” says Varlik.
By now, we should know better. “This will happen again,” she says.
It’s a lesson we failed to learn after 1918, but one that other countries that routinely deal with outbreaks have taken to heart. If we follow in their footsteps, we may remember coronavirus as the pandemic that altered us to a reality that we had been ignoring for decades to forced us to do something about it.
“I don't think you can say ‘These things are gonna happen all the time, and we're gonna fail to respond every time,’” Jones says.
“It happens all the time. Eventually, we will figure out a better response.”
Part of that better response comes from being more prepared, reminded even, of the remarkably tragic first year of the pandemic, and the grim milestone we hit on May 28, 2020.