In 50 years, what will the COVID-19 pandemic be in the American imagination? Unless we make a conscious decision to memorialize this era, it will be purposefully forgotten, just like other pandemics.
My grandmother died of COVID-19 in January. My family had discussions about how to keep her insulated from it, and everyone was careful. But she was hospitalized around Christmas with breathing issues, and within a week or so, the diagnosis of coronavirus came through. Mary Lou Williams was still needle-sharp, up until the last time I heard her voice. Shortly after our final conversation, she went into a coma from which she would not awaken, beginning the pitiless, desperate cycle that so many of us have sustained in the last two years: helplessly watching a loved one slip away.
I’ll always remember the indignity of Zoom meetings with my family, speaking to my grandmother as if she were really there, trying to stir something in her; the gradual recognition that she was not breathing on her own; the moment, in the final minutes before her extubation, when my uncle said, “We want you to fight, Mom, but if you’re too tired, that’s OK too.”
And whenever I think of that time, I think of the hundreds of thousands of other families who suffered similar, and often greater, trauma.
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There will likely be no large-scale memorial for COVID-19 victims, people like my grandmother. There are too many names to list. There will be no day of honor for the dead; it would be too inglorious. There may be no lessons learned by future Americans about the practical and moral realities of a pandemic; doing so would acknowledge too much failure.
There will be no legacy of COVID-19 unless we make choices to memorialize it.
There is too much appetite to forget what we’ve been through, just as there was for the Spanish flu. Hell, there is an appetite, among millions of people, to pretend COVID-19 doesn’t exist anymore. It’s apparent in the millions of Americans who have gone unvaccinated, despite some of them seeing friends and relatives choke to death on their own lung fluid, and in the machinations of politicians across the country, from Florida to Texas to North Dakota, who have completely shifted from hoping to contain the disease to using it exclusively as a cultural wedge, often with very real consequences — Florida’s Broward County, for example, saw four educators die with COVID-19 in two days.
This impulse, to forget events like COVID-19, is far from new. In Philadelphia, the Spanish flu was an apocalyptic event, taking tens of thousands of lives. But up until the dawn of coronavirus, there was basically no recognition of it, so desperate were Americans to move past an ignominious tragedy.
Perhaps some things are too hard to look at in their totality. Natural disasters and pandemics, specifically, are difficult to get one’s head around. A war is a war; a human toll is expected. But there is a vast, unknowable, and egalitarian helplessness in a pandemic. No glory can be won against it. No decisive battle can be found. At best, just a trickle of innovations that eventually head off the end of days, and at worst, herd immunity won from a rampaging disease.
But after what I have experienced in this pandemic, I don’t find this to be acceptable. I don’t want to be 75 and looking back on this time as some distant memory — as if the millions of lives lost and families destroyed were just some sighing fluke of history. The untold wisdom and unrecorded history lost to this disaster cannot be taken lightly.
As Americans, we have an innate fear of reckoning with our history. (See: the current culture war over critical race theory.) We are a young country, with a loathsome past. But there needs to be some permanent reckoning with what has happened here. A permanent memorial installation. A holiday. Something that won’t let this shocking loss of life and love slip into obscurity — something that will live on well beyond the youngest people with memories of COVID-19′s devastation.
While I lost my grandmother during the pandemic, my daughter was born in May. In a few years, she’ll learn about the pandemic, or something about it, at the very least. I want her to know that she was born in a momentous era; I want her to know that there was a human cost, and a human cost to her family, and that it can — and probably will — happen again.
It’s not just for the victims that we have to memorialize COVID-19. Facing an era of mass death and deprivation, it is important that we do not become inured to the blameless suffering we’re going to see as we stumble into a future of climate change and unmanageable disease. We cannot afford to let future generations forget those we lost, and we cannot afford to forget this ourselves. We have to be unafraid to remember this time. It will be hard, but it is necessary.
My grandmother was a believer. This is not her eulogy, but it is written for her memory, so I will end with a Bible verse:
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. — Ecclesiastes 1:18