Why is this important: COVID-19 is a global pandemic, but its experience has been fractured by where people live, their race, their age, where they work and what their policies are – creating a challenge for those charged with commemorating it.
Driving the news: Last week, officials from the New York City Sanitation Department unveiled what they called the city’s first permanent memorial to COVID-19 victims: a statue dedicated to the nine sanitation workers lost in because of the virus last year.
Details: New York City – America’s first epicenter of the pandemic – is considering a permanent memorial on Hart Island, the site of the city’s public cemetery.
- In London, workers planted a memorial garden in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
- An artist incarcerated in the United States commemorated more than 200 people who died in prison from COVID-19 with hand-drawn portraits.
- Uruguay is working on the world’s first large-scale memorial on the global COVID-19 toll with a $ 1.5 million project on the shores of Montevideo.
- The American Museum of Natural History documents people’s experiences since the start of the pandemic, from handwritten “closed” signs that have been placed on restaurants to the hospital ID card of the first US recipient of a vaccine COVID-19.
“We are looking for scale, compassion and understanding of how the pandemic is experienced, ”says Anthea Hartig, director of the National Museum of American History in Washington. But they are also interested in times when communities have come together – whether in alliance or in conflict – which are critical for historians, she adds.
The backstory: Considering the heavy toll that diseases of all kinds have taken throughout human history, there are surprisingly few memorials to pandemics and epidemics.
- More than 600,000 Americans died during the 1918 influenza pandemic – and the worldwide death toll may have reached 50 million – yet a granite bench installed in Vermont in 2018 is one of the few memorials Americans to the dead, while World War I monuments are everywhere.
- This is in part due to fears that objects during the pandemic could be contaminated and the fact that a battle death was considered much more valiant than succumbing to illness, Hartig explains.
“We have lost so many people in the world. But we don’t count it as we should, as a big break in the continuum of history. I think we have to see that with COVID 19 – what’s on the other side of it breaking and losing? ”
– Anthéa Hartig
Between the lines: While few people in the world have been completely spared from COVID-19, some communities have suffered disproportionately while others have escaped the full toll of the virus.
- Trying to unify this range of experiences and emotions into a single memorial may be beyond the skill of any architect, especially at a time when a fractured American society struggles to come to a collective understanding of its own past.
- “There is no reason to expect commemoration of the pandemic to be less political than its management,” Jeffrey Olick, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, recently told New York magazine.
And after: In the UK, the non-profit social history initiative Augr will launch an effort next month to collect a million British life stories during the time of the pandemic using a device based on AI that can help with biographical interviews.
- “It’s a perfect way for people to remember themselves and those they have already lost in the pandemic,” says Justin Hopkins, director of Augr.
What to watch: “Memories change over time,” says University of Arizona historian Susan Crane. “There may be other stories we want to tell… that involve losses but also other events that have not yet happened. “