Every Friday, volunteers gather on the Albert Embankment at the River Thames in London to lovingly retouch thousands of red hearts inscribed on a Portland stone wall directly opposite the Houses of Parliament. Each heart is dedicated to a British victim of COVID. It is a deeply social space – a place where the COVID bereaved come together to honour their dead and share memories.
The so-called National Covid Memorial Wall is not, however, officially sanctioned. In fact, ever since activists from COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice (CBFFJ) daubed the first hearts on the wall in March 2021 it has been a thorn in the side of the authorities.
Featured in the media whenever there is a new revelation about partygate, the wall is a symbol of the government’s blundering response to the pandemic and an implicit rebuke to former prime minister Boris Johnson and other government staff who breached coronavirus restrictions.
As one writer put it, viewed from parliament the hearts resemble “a reproachful smear of blood”. Little wonder that the only time Johnson visited the wall was under the cover of darkness to avoid the TV cameras. His successor Rishi Sunak has been similarly reluctant to acknowledge the wall or say what might take its place as a more formal memorial to those lost in the pandemic.
Though in April the UK Commission on COVID Commemoration presented Sunak with a report on how the pandemic should be remembered, Sunak has yet to reveal the commission’s recommendations.
Lady Heather Hallett, the former high court judge who chairs the public inquiry into COVID, has attempted to acknowledge the trauma of the bereaved by commissioning a tapestry to capture the experiences of people who “suffered hardship and loss” during the pandemic. Yet such initiatives are no substitute for state-sponsored memorials.
What is remembered and what is forgotten?
This political vacuum is odd when you consider that the United Kingdom, like other countries, engages in many other commemorative activities central to national identity. The fallen of the first world war and other military conflicts are commemorated in a Remembrance Sunday ceremony held every November at the Cenotaph in London, for example.
But while wars lend themselves to compelling moral narratives, it is difficult to locate meaning in the random mutations of a virus. And while wars draw on a familiar repertoire of symbols and rituals, pandemics have few templates.
For instance, despite killing more than 50 million globally, there are virtually no memorials to the 1918-1919 “Spanish” influenza pandemic. Nor does the UK have a memorial to victims of HIV/AIDS. As the memory studies scholar Astrid Erll puts it, pandemics have not been sufficiently “mediated” in collective memory.
As a rule, they do not feature in famous paintings, novels or films or in the oral histories passed down as part of family lore. Nor are they able to draw on familiar cultural materials such as poppies, gun carriages, catafalques and royal salutes. Without such symbols and schemata, Erll argues, we struggle to incorporate pandemics into our collective remembering systems.
This lacuna was brought home to me last September when tens of thousands of Britons flocked to the south bank of the Thames to pay their respects to Britain’s longest serving monarch. By coincidence, the police directed the queue for the late Queen’s lying-in-state in Westminster Hall over Lambeth Bridge and along Albert Embankment.
But few of the people I spoke to in the queue seemed to realise what the hearts signified. It was as if the spectacle of a royal death had eclipsed the suffering of the COVID bereaved, rendering the wall all but invisible.
Waiting for answers
Another place where the pandemic could be embedded in collective memory is at the public inquiry. Opening the preliminary hearing last October into the UK’s resilience and preparedness for a pandemic, Lady Hallett promised to put the estimated 6.8 million Britons mourning the death of a family member or friend to COVID at the heart of the legal process. “I am listening to them; their loss will be recognised,” she said.
But though Lady Hallett has strategically placed photographs of the hearts throughout the inquiry’s offices in Bayswater and has invited the bereaved to relate their experiences to “Every Story Matters”, the hearing room is dominated by ranks of lawyers. And except when a prominent minister or official is called to testify, the proceedings rarely make the news.
This is partly the fault of the inquiry process itself. The hearings are due to last until 2025, with the report on the first stage of the process not expected until the summer of 2024. As Lucy Easthope, an emergency planner and veteran of several disasters, puts it: “one of the most painful frustrations of the inquiry will be temporal. It will simply take too long.”
The inquiry has also been beset by bureaucratic obfuscation, not least by the Cabinet Office which attempted (unsuccessfully in the end) to block the release of WhatsApp messages relating to discussions between ministers and Downing Street officials in the run-up to lockdown.
To the inquiry’s critics, the obvious parallel is with the Grenfell inquiry, which promised to “learn lessons” from the devastating fire that engulfed the west London tower in 2017 but has so far ended up blurring the lines of corporate responsibility and forestalling a political reckoning.
The real work of holding the government to account and making memories takes place every Friday at the wall and the other places where people come together to spontaneously mourn and remember absent loved ones. These are the lives that demand to be “seen”. They are the ghosts that haunt our amnesic political culture.