Whatever form those memorials end up taking, they’ll occupy a unique place in the memorial landscape. Compared to other tributes, disease memorials are relatively rare. There are almost no memorials to the millions who died during the 1918 flu pandemic, and the few that do exist were only installed recently
Unlike diseases, wars, attacks, and disasters are usually finite, tied to a particular place, or a defined time. Memorials to those kinds of events can be set up at specific places. Diseases, on the other hand, can be more pervasive, spreading throughout whole regions or populations. There’s no equivalent to Ground Zero for COVID-19, just like there wasn’t for the flu that ravaged the world in 1918.
Many diseases are also stigmatized
, making them harder for people to talk about
. In the past few decades, public memorials have helped break through that stigma. Forty years ago today, the first reports
of a different epidemic — HIV/AIDS — were published by the CDC. The disease tore through the gay community, and homophobia and fear left patients and their loved ones ostracized. The AIDS quilt
, first displayed in 1987, showed the world the devastation of the epidemic, and helped pressure officials to do something about the disease, instead of ignoring the growing death toll.
COVID-19 memorials are being built in a different environment than the ones built by AIDS activists in the 1980s. Research into COVID-19 is well-funded, and the societal pressures between the two are nothing alike. What they do have in common is a need for a space to mourn.
Other deadly outbreaks have shown that establishing memorials can be a part of helping societies heal after devastating and disruptive loss. As a part of efforts to combat Ebola, experts recommended that memorials
be established in affected regions, to give communities a safe space to mourn their dead. Cemeteries and memorials for people who died of Ebola were established in Liberia
and other countries. Similar plans could help comfort people grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19, who may have had to forgo funeral rituals
during the pandemic.
All these monuments, made of steel and stone, and living wood
will be designed to honor people who are gone, or who contributed to the efforts to stop the pandemic. There will be plaques and parks, statues and stained glass, all trying to comprehend something that is incomprehensible. Any effort will be complicated by the sheer immensity of the task at hand. The number of dead that need to be memorialized continues to grow, and may never be known fully
. Anything we come up with will only be an echo of the vast loss.
“Even if we could come up with a complete census of COVID’s victims,” author and journalist Justin Davidson wrote in Curbed
earlier this year, “inscribing all their names would require a wall the size of Hoover Dam”