February 2. “History”, writes the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedman, “suggests we may forget the pandemic sooner than we think.”*
He is commenting on the milestone of 100,000 covid deaths in the UK.
Freedman begins with the point I made in my Computing the Sorrow post last week: “So far, the act of remembering has been deferred or even forbidden. Second only to the deaths themselves, perhaps the greatest pain the coronavirus has inflicted has been its denial of the right to say goodbye.” But his subsequent argument that thereafter there may be no collective memory seems at best premature and in most respects open to question.
He repeats Laura Spinney’s observation that there are no public memorials to the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic which killed probably between fifty and a hundred million people, in contrast to the current covid global death toll of 2.2 million in a much larger population.** This is to confuse monuments with memory. London erected a column in honour of the Great Fire, not the Plague a year earlier, but two generations later Defoe wrote his Journal of the Plague Year for a readership still traumatised by the epidemic.
He states that the “facts” of pandemics can “take years to emerge”, noting that initial estimates of the 1918-19 outbreak were decades later revised sharply upwards. But thanks in particular to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, this has been a minutely calibrated disaster. There remain some variations in how covid deaths are measured in different countries, but there is not going to be some subsequent recount which adds tens of millions to the death toll.
More broadly he draws a contrast between military and medical narratives. “Wars offer a compelling, linear story”, he argues. “There are causes and consequences, battles, surrenders and treaties, all taking place in a defined space and time. Pandemics are not like that.” As I argued in an earlier post,** set against the other great misfortunes of our time, particularly inequality and climate change, the pandemic does have a plot, with a beginning, middle, and a now somewhat delayed ending. This is why the most influential accounts of such events, those of Defoe and Camus, have taken the form of conventional novels. The dynamics of inequality, as Thomas Piketty has shown, can be traced at least as far back as the late eighteenth century and have no resolution in sight. Equally the destruction of nature commences with the industrial revolution and to take the most optimistic view, will not be overcome for decades.
Freedland’s final point is more fundamental. A viral infection is unlike a world war. “Crucially,” he writes “a pandemic lacks the essential ingredients of a story: clear heroes and villains with intent and motive.” There is an obvious truth in this. The ultimate cause is bats, not people. Covid infections occur by chance, carelessness or neglect, and for all the errors of a Trump or a Johnson, the event as a whole cannot be blamed, except by conspiracy theorists, on individual or collective malevolence.
And yet, as in the stories of Defoe and Camus, the accounts emerging from the pandemic are full of personal courage and achievement as well as individual and institutional shortcomings. In the midst of the struggle it is fruitless to determine how countries will revise their national narratives in the aftermath of so seismic an interruption to their affairs. It will in the end be a matter of choice rather than historical inevitability.
We can remember and then act, or we can forget and then repeat the failings of human agency in this pandemic. We can keep in front of our minds the lessons learned about collective endeavour in the national health service, in science laboratories, and in communities up and down the country. Or we can allow the incompetence and self-interest of politicians and the private sector to be buried with the victims.
Laura Spinney, Pale Rider (London: Penguin, 2017), p. 291.
**’Pandemics and Plots’, October 19, 2020