From Plague to Plaque?

IN FOCUS, 18 May 2020

Peter Nias – TRANSCEND Media Service

Looking back from the future: Remembering War and COVID-19

13 May 2020 – We say ‘never again’ while remembering awful events in human history.  But do we really mean it, and try our hardest?  Unfortunately, it seems to take at least two world-level disasters for humanity to seriously do something about it.  We tend to need a ‘second spike’ (or more) of enormous losses of people, and of economic stagnation, before we genuinely act to tackle them, especially when these spikes are decades or even a century apart.

Whether those losses are through spikes of war or pestilence or starvation or austerity, at home or abroad, we seem to take the easy way out when it comes to remembering people who bear the brunt at the front line.  We honour some of them (there are more we don’t honour) by stopping and praying, by erecting monuments and plaques.  We then continue as before until there is a reoccurrence.

War Spikes in the 20th Century

One such war spike in the 20th century was World War I.  We didn’t learn its lessons, despite suffering huge social and economic costs lasting generations.  We lifted the war lockdown and went back to a semblance of normality (it took the UK until 2015 to pay off its economic debt.)

By not taking action post-1918, all too soon there was a second spike of losses, that of World War II (and it took the UK until 2006 to pay off that economic debt).  But then there was a difference.  After 1945 the UK and other countries did take remedial action, on both domestic and international aspects.   The UK saw the creation of the welfare state, better education, urban planning and more, all geared to tackling rampant pre-WW2 societal ills. At the world level the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund were formed.  Arguably all these and more were the real ‘remembrance plaques’ coming out of those times, not just the war memorials.

Since WW2 we have just about avoided a third spike of world war. Take your pick from several occasions, of which Cuba was one.

Disease Spikes in the 20th Century

Another 20th century spike, which was double or even triple-barbed, was the 1918-19 19 Spanish Flu. Despite this worldwide scourge it was soon forgotten. Nor was it properly researched.  Not even a ‘communal plaque’ was erected.  Doubtless we didn’t want to memorialise what would have been at least double the number of humans already lost in the war. This was despite (or perhaps because of) the mainly working class front line people – soldiers and medics, let alone civilians – who bore the losses (we didn’t want the ideas of the Russian revolution spreading across Europe).

One positive outcome of that flu was great pressure to develop vaccines against many other common diseases of the time.  As a result these ‘jabs’ transformed health from its poor shape in the pre-WW1era.  Those frontline workers who were lost to that Spanish Flu are anonymously and unintentionally memorialised in the millions of lives saved in the following decades.

The Human Race Becomes a Faster Race

By adding together the WW1 and WW2 war victories, and the subsequent huge number of medical, social and economic achievements, we can see these have resulted in us living life at a very much greater pace since the mid-20th century. The problem that has emerged is that these welcome long term human achievements, bought at the cost of millions of deaths, have gradually become subsumed by short term thinking. The human race turned on the gas, literally and metaphorically. So boom economies (despite warning spikes of busts) were encouraged. Nor did we really care about the environment, despite warnings of those ‘natural spikes’ by Rachel Carson and many others.

Multiple Mini-Spikes — But Elsewhere

So in the last half century there have been many mini-spikes of human disaster.  However, these have been usually limited to specific locales around the world.  They were deemed ‘containable’ to that area – whether they were of war, of pestilence, of starvation or even of ‘climate drowning’.  They were not even subject to formal ‘plaquefication’ or other remembrance in the countries concerned.

It has taken something else to give a severe warning to the present day world. This time we cannot pretend it is someone else’s problem.

So how can we properly remember the frontline workers against COVID-19, both those who were, and are, being lost and those who survived, as well as those of the general populace who died?  A clap for carers is just a small start.

We also will need to remember them in a way that those who are too young, or not yet born, will not be tempted to dismiss it in future years as ‘parent and grandparent stories of times past that we won’t have to worry about’.   Because, as experience of the last century shows us, they will have to worry.

Some Remembrance Ideas

For proper remembrance, in addition to ‘the usual’ ways, please add your own ideas to these:

  • Make sure we don’t have a second or third spike of COVID-19 deaths anywhere.
  • To hold stocks of necessary materials and to continue intensive research into this and other viruses for multiple decades to come.
  • Create a ‘plaque for a plague’ by keeping a permanent COVID-19 virus shaped image in the public psyche as a long term reminder to tackle such issues (even though it’s technically not a plague).
  • thinking forwards to 2050, and on to 2100+, when considering long term and integrated action on war, pestilence, starvation and ‘climate drowning’. These events cannot be considered in isolation.  Otherwise, the short term thinking of the 20th-21ct century will be a human experiment which will end in our long term downfall.

I suggest we should all put forward our individual ideas so they can be discussed, analysed and operationalised by everyone.

Send them to me if you wish and I will collate and publicise.

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Peter Nias is an independent social and peace researcher from Bradford, UK. He was formerly with The Peace Museum and an honorary visiting research fellow in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. Author of The Zeus Complex: A Manifesto against the Aerial Bombardment of Civilians, 2016. Email: PeterNias@aol.com


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 May 2020.

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