Metaphors, collective Memory, and the Pandemic

Posted by

I recently finished watching “It’s a Sin” (HBO). The show follows a group of friends living together in London during the AIDS crisis. The five episodes covered ten years, from 1981 to 1991, and covered how at first there was so little knowledge of the disease that not even nurses wanted to enter the hospital room of a patient. There were bigoted parents, casual cruelty towards gay people and above all- a blasee attitude from the majority of society.  Once the disease spread to the general population, the public slowly began to care. But it was way too late for so, so many people. 

A number of books and films have come out on the topic in the last few years, and I expect to see more. Take any given collective trauma, it will be processed not immediately afterwards, but much later. Psychologists and other trauma experts say this mechanism of repression, of moving on is a mental survival technique. You gain some temporal distance from the event or experience, take a few breaths before you begin the messy, painful work of processing. With almost 600 000 people dead in the US alone, I wonder, what will the narratives, stories and cultural archive of the Covid-19 Pandemic look like?

In the early days of the pandemic, governments in the Western world  tried to evoke the AIDS pandemic as an example of how communities need to come together. I never heard the comparison again, and I am glad. As a government, especially in the US, to evoke the AIDS crisis as a hero story is a rather bold interpretation of history, or to quote the British Royal Family: “Recollections of events may differ.” The AIDS crisis went on for as long as it did because the government did nothing. The communities organized, mobilized and stood together because nobody helped them. They once more experienced what they already knew: That in Reagan/Bush Era America, the parts of the population most affected by the virus, gay men, drug users, African-Americans and Latinos/Latinx, they did not matter. And many took gleeful delight in their pain. If anything, the AIDS crisis is a testament to the resilience of the LGBTQ* community, not a playbook on how to handle a pandemic. In fact, it’s one of the most shameful chapters of the 20th century (and there are many!). 

More than one year into this pandemic, and vaccinated, I am grateful for many things, but I wonder, how will this crisis be remembered?  Granted, there are countries like New Zealand or Japan, who, by virtue of being islands (easier to control borders), effective leadership and social cohesion are faring better than others. There are incredible stories of generosity all over the world. In my neighborhood alone, several people offered to go grocery shopping for the elderly. We clapped for healthcare workers (not enough, they need real support!), and the Unitarian church around my house has been ringing their bell for a long time. Videos of people singing together on their balconies  and through open windows made the rounds online. But we also have healthcare workers at their wits’ end, exhausted, and drained. Every frontline worker in a supermarket will have a story about people walking in without masks, not distancing, etc. Similar to the AIDS epidemic, the demographics affected the most were BIPOC.  In Germany, the so-called “Querdenker” (free thinkers) movement, an unholy mix of science-deniers, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and Neo-Nazis, are holding regular demonstrations, while freelancers, artists, small business owners and parents working from home with their children don’t know how to make it to the end of the month. Even the best, most patient of us are tired, angry, exhausted.

Some say it’s a marathon, and that in every marathon, the runner thinks they can’t finish, but they do. They are cheered on by others, and often their fellow runners drag them over the finish line. According to legend however, the original  messenger died upon his arrival in the Greek city of Marathon, so the metaphor may not be as apt as we want it to be. A long winter? Or maybe we need to figure out a new metaphor for how we talk about the epidemic. 

What is it going to be then? How will this crisis be remembered? Obviously, only time will tell, and while I am right now pessimistic about humanity, perhaps, there will be some lessons learned. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s