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The Manchester Briefing on COVID-19 issue 46: Commemorating COVID

Commemorating the victims of COVID-19 will form a critical aspect of recovery and building the resilience of communities across the world.

This month’s Manchester Briefing, which is aimed at those who plan and implement recovery and renewal from the pandemic, considers the subject in more depth with an article written by Ronald Schumann and Elyse Zavar from the University of North Texas.

While remembrances following disasters and tragedies are common across the world, they say the nature of the pandemic presents three unique challenges for communities seeking to commemorate.

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Full extent of loss

Firstly, environmental disasters like floods, wildfires, or cyclones tend to be geographically bound and leave behind physical scars on the landscape marking their path. By contrast, pandemic diseases like COVID-19 are everywhere. Apart from the absence of loved ones themselves and the shops that may be temporarily shuttered during lockdowns, COVID-19 leaves few visual cues on the landscape to indicate the full extent of the loss felt in affected communities.

This is especially problematic as commemoration is frequently tied to the place, or site, where a tragedy has occurred. In a placeless, global pandemic, local leaders and organisations/groups who support communities will be asking where COVID-19 should be commemorated.

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Time frame

Secondly, the prolonged time frame of the pandemic further complicates commemoration. Environmental disasters are generally sudden in nature, with a well-defined beginning and end. Since commemoration forms part of the long-term recovery process, it typically begins after a disaster has ended. As communities resume normal routines and reconstruct damaged infrastructure, commemoration enables a collective sense of closure and moving beyond the tragedy.

The prolonged, uncertain duration of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult to pinpoint the end of the disaster and the start of recovery. On the other hand, unlike most other disasters, with COVID-19 communities have not waited for its end to initiate their commemorations. In fact, communities have organized commemorations since the pandemic’s earliest days. For instance during the first lockdowns across Europe, we saw coordinated applause and musical performances for embattled hospital workers.

Given the persistence of the pandemic with its evolving variants and fluctuating outbreaks, local leaders and organisations/groups who support communities will now also be asking when the pandemic should be commemorated.

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Ways to remember

The question of how to best remember COVID-19 presents its own challenges too. Yet this question also offers an array of opportunities to promote collective recovery and to enhance community resilience. The Briefing says the fundamental principles of how to best commemorate the pandemic are largely universal. Drawing from examples of past commemorations, it highlights five different ways of remembering:

  • Public art: can serve as an important medium for collective remembrance as it simultaneously records past tragic events for the public at large and engages individual audience members to interpret meanings based on their own experiences and perspectives.
  • Memory walls: collages of cherished belongings and/or photographs can be assembled to remember specific people, social communities, or vibrant gathering places lost to tragedy.
  • Collective performances: allows for larger groups to gather together at a set time and date to remember. In many instances, these collective events raise donations that help advance recovery or resilience activities.
  • Social Media: channels such as community Facebook pages can provide a digital and interactive medium for collectively remembering losses from tragic events.
  • Intergenerational resilience stories: the pandemic has left few material artifacts to support remembering, thus necessitating commemoration through storytelling.

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Community wishes

The Briefing, which is put together by Alliance Manchester Business School and the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, concludes that commemoration can and should take many forms, tangible and intangible, depending on the community's wants and needs.

It says that one size does not fit all when it comes to commemoration. Instead, people's unique, localised experiences should guide the types of commemorations that occur, while effective and meaningful commemorations will help communities preserve the memory of the victims of the pandemic.

Download this week's Manchester Briefing on COVID-19 (issue 46)

If you would like to contribute your knowledge to the Briefing contact