Cities often pay tribute to the past by marking the sites of notable births, major events, battles, or inventions, and by erecting monuments to prominent leaders or citizens. Yet it’s rare to find historical markers about mass illness. In older European cities, the occasional marker may acknowledge a plague pit, but actual memorials to victims are rare. Diseases, it turns out, are commonly remembered only when referencing something else. We recall the 1666 Great Fire of London, for example, as finally ending the plague, but the fire itself was the historic event. And in popular culture, we remember Typhoid Mary for her personal story, but we don’t think of typhoid as an important part of New York City’s history, though disease response shaped its infrastructure and building codes.
It’s always a challenge to commemorate disease. Memorials to World War I, in which 116,000 Americans lost their lives, stand in many U.S. towns, but few markers outside graveyards commemorate the Spanish Flu, which killed five times as many. That ghastly episode has returned to mind due to the coronavirus outbreak, but historian Alfred Crosby wasn’t wrong when he titled his 1989 book America’s Forgotten Pandemic.
In the past, epidemics were part of an ebb and flow of disease: illnesses like cholera and smallpox would return, in waves, over decades, with no clear end point. Today, we’re armed with vaccines and cures for the illnesses that killed our ancestors, but we don’t mark any date of victory over these diseases; the threats just faded away.
Epidemics often get forgotten, in ways that war, terrorism, or natural disasters do not—with some exceptions. In 1971, Memphis installed a Yellow Fever memorial to commemorate outbreaks from a century before. Communities generally mark accidents as greater tragedies than illness. In 1968, 85 people lost their lives in the Braniff Flight 352 crash near Dawson, Texas. That event is remembered with a marker at Dallas Love Field. Yet that same year, 100,000 people in the U.S. died of Hong Kong Flu, with no marker of any kind.
Epidemics don’t lend themselves to memorials. The AIDS quilt personalized the memory of those who died of the disease in a monumental and emotional manner and drew attention to a health crisis that many wished to ignore. Nobody could claim that the coronavirus needs an awareness campaign; we’ve all upended our lives for it.
For those who lost a family member or were seriously ill themselves, Covid-19 has been life-changing. For those fortunate enough to stay healthy, the last several months have been more like living in limbo. Many have lost jobs, and all of us had to change plans. But if we wanted to mark this period for posterity, we couldn’t pinpoint a start date. The disease crept up on us, and eventually we battened down the hatches. Some headed for cover at the beginning of March, while others hung on for a few weeks more. Some kept going to work in essential jobs, trying to adapt to the new conditions. It’s not clear when it will end. If the disease fades away, it will happen over the course of many months.
Covid-19 is the first global pandemic of the digital age. We’re creating a greater information archive about it than was ever possible before. We may remember how we responded to the threat more than we remember the illness itself—especially since Covid-19, compared with past historic pandemics, has not killed or sickened nearly as many human beings. For many, the challenges—working from home, wearing masks—have been more mundane.
Concerns about our food-supply chain, for instance, have led more people to buy local. Farmers’ markets are overrun. Of course, local agriculture is not necessarily sustainable, and few of us can afford to buy all our food that way. But the pandemic has made many aware of the realities of industrial food supply and its bottlenecks. Shortages have led people to become more creative. Many are adopting vegetarian alternatives amid higher meat prices. Others are discovering the joys of baking. Perhaps such adaptations will serve as an inflection point, a moment of welcome change. Few of us can raise and butcher our own hogs, but many of us can grow our own carrots or radishes.
It’s unclear how we’ll acknowledge this moment for posterity. As city leaders, and sometimes mobs, dismantle statues, vacant spaces are opening up—but a statue representing Covid-19 would be awkward. How does one sculpt a virus? Maybe, when a vaccine emerges, a central figure will be credited with its invention and be suitable for such an honor. But it’s also possible that, as with past pandemics, we won’t want to remember much about this one. Perhaps we’ll just move forward, pushing the pandemic out of our minds—along with the knowledge that it won’t be the last.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images