The hard truth about memorializing the pandemic

But these acts of commemoration aren’t likely to lead to permanent monuments where we gather for reflection. By convention, we erect most of our monuments to salute the heroic spirit, or acknowledge acts of sacrifice of statue-genic soldiers, police, and firefighters or illustrate national ideals, such as the Statue of Liberty or the Gateway Arch. Since the 9/11 attacks especially, first responders have deservedly acquired heroic stature they never possessed before, so we can expect that the medical responders—from doctors to janitors—who died from Covid-19 might be memorialized in granite sometime this decade. But the other 500,000? Even if they struggled heroically for their lives on their deathbeds, we’re not likely to formally institutionalize the memory of their passing because it’s not our way. We quickly forgot the influenza pandemic of 1918, recalling most palpably only when similar viral threats surfaced in 1957, 1976 and 2003, but then put the deaths out of mind as the crises passed. Our stinginess about building shrines to honor of people who died from disease is illustrated by our reaction to the AIDS catastrophe. The AIDS quilt marked the deaths from that epidemic in the late 1980s, touring 20 cities. (As of last year, the quilt had grown to 1.2 million square feet and is stored in warehouse in Oakland, Calif.) Yet no permanent monument to the 700,000 Americans (and counting) to die from that virus exists, although an initiative to build such a place has take root in Southern California.

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky,” Albert Camus wrote in The Plague. “There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” Would building a monument to the Covid-19 dead increase our vigilance and keep our minds primed for the challenge posed by the next viral wave? Probably no more than the 9/11 Memorial and Museum have done to safeguard us from another attack. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.