This paper tries to understand the politics involved in memorialising COVID-19 in the digital world. The COVID-19 pandemic brought forth multiple challenges in front of the world and is expected to continue to do so. How we remember the pandemic is critical to our responses towards challenges that will be posed by it in the medium to long terms. An approach that recognises failures of state policies may yield completely different answers than one that considers COVID a natural disaster. The question is as much of remembering COVID-19 as it is of how it ought to be remembered. While the privately curated National COVID Memorial exists online, it falls short in drawing any relevant connections between the dead and fails to imbue their deaths with any common meaning other than their cause of death. The question of if a memorial is required at all is relevant to this paper, especially in the digital age when images, videos and writings are widely accessible. We can view with hindsight different responses of the Indian masses to the pandemic in each subsequent wave. As videos and images swirled over the digital domain, different kinds of responses to the pandemic were generated. This paper will try to answer if a unitary meaning ought to be given to COVID-19, especially to the backdrop of alternate discourses and experiences available digitally.
Keywords: COVID-19, digital, media, memory, pandemic
Introduction: The Politics of memorialising COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year, new challenges are unearthed in terms of political economy, geopolitics, healthcare and epidemiology. The role of digitisation in mediating all of these is critical in understanding the ways in which our subjectivities continue to be shaped, affecting policies and responses. The word digitisation has been preferred here over ‘digital realm/space’ to highlight the pervasiveness of the digital as a medium for human interaction and to avoid talking about it as a discrete, external presence or platform. The cultural effects of globalisation are central to the question of understanding memory formation as citizens, stuck at their homes in the lockdown, were presented with a transnational assortment of images through broadcast media and the internet. Despite the scale of COVID, it has remained a largely digital event for a great part of the world. Therefore, the role of digitally accessed media is critical in understanding the processes of memory formation and recall.
COVID has been read elsewhere not as a crisis but as a symptom of a larger crisis (Ang, 2021, p. 600), a reading which is central to the nature of the memories subject to commemoration. Memory formation occurs through the dual acts of remembering and forgetting. In other words, the process of memory formation is selective and exclusionary, something also pointed out by Meyer with respect to actual political action and memory (2008, p. 176), how not the veracity of history but the manner and the means of communication, and the identity of communicator become relevant. The politics of history and the contests within memory are deeply intertwined. Therefore, the memorialisation of COVID will be an ideological endeavour as certain aspects of the enfolding crisis will have to be highlighted in service of these enabling narratives of COVID as tragedy and an instance of collective action (Erll, 2020, p. 868). As the title reads, this essay attempts to grapple with the contradictions inherent with such a proposition. The parenthetical “how” implies not only the multifarious possibilities within such an endeavour but also the frustrations arising out of the contradictions involved therein. A question contained that will be grappled with will be the very question of the transnationality of COVID, which while cannot be denied, was through its reception an example of glocalisation. Inglis talks about the glocalisation of memory is helpful in considering transnational phenomena like COVID. Speaking of how the “transnational production and experience of memory requires a multi-actor commemoration field” (Bell, 2009, p. 352 qtd. in Inglis, 2016, p. 149, para 3), Inglis alerts us to the numerous agents involved in the processes of memory creation, archiving and remembrance. Different countries and communities responded variously to the pandemic. This would beg the question whether COVID memorials, if they come to exist at all should be transnational, national or local in their scope. Furthermore, there must be an avowed consciousness of the differences in COVID’s phenomenology between socio-economic divides like the Global North and the Global South, the urban and the rural, among others.
The question must also take into account the nature, or more fundamentally the existence of a collective and of collective memory. Hoskins (2018, p. 86) talks about the depersonalisation and decollectivisation of memory as an instance of the digital age of memory, what he terms as “memory of the multitude.” The multitude is an incoherent and multidirectional entity that is distinguished from the collective in many key respects, the most important one being the lack of shared interests. An instance of a memorial in the digital age contesting with the margins between the collective and the multitude is the National Covid Memorial which raises important questions about who is remembered how and by whom. COVID being a largely digital event, it is “always already” archived in the “shadow archives” (Hoskins, 2018, p. 100, para 1), easily accessible through a hashtag. Therefore, is there a need for a ‘physical’ memorial? The second question is more critical and asks the need for a memorial at all (Kurian, “Why We Cannot Memorialise,” 2021). This essay will investigate these questions in a bid to understand the challenges increasingly likely future pandemics will present to memory studies.
The phenomenology of COVID
As COVID took shape around the world in the first half of 2020, there was an inability to formulate a timely response to the pandemic, as the political discourse was rife with scepticism, conspiracy theories, and unscientific beliefs, especially in Europe and the USA, which could have been fueled by racial attitudes (Farhart and Chen, 2022, p. 2). There was a “collective disorientation” (Means and Slater, 2021, p. 515) produced by these circumstances. Confined to their homes, social time was jumbled due to “repetitive, cyclical patterns of temporal experience” (Erll, 2020, p. 862). The uncertainty and precarity combined to create another, more fragmented mental health pandemic contemporaneously.
The suspension of social time, the emergence of temporal alternatives in the forms of “work-from-home” and digital education, newly fortified social media regimes, and a nostalgia for a return to the suspended and crumbling notions of social time fed into the disorientation and created a sense of an ‘ending’ or possibility of a “radical societal change” (Dein, 2021, p. 10). These anxieties were heightened a year later when the Second Wave of the pandemic brought forth unimaginable destruction. Social media was then filled with requests for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, and fundraisers. Images of corpses floating on the Ganga (Pandey, 2021) and mass cremations in the national capital (Siddiqui, 2021) became iconic of the Second Wave.
In Europe, an interesting phenomenon was the imagination of the pandemic through imageries of the Black Plague, most popularly through the work of Banksy, while the US resorted to the 9/11 attacks (Stark, 2020, p. 17) as a historical experience. India too drew on martial and deistic imagery to talk about frontline workers as “corona warriors” and ‘Corona Mata’. Meanwhile, the regime of untouchability was extended to include frontline workers as well. All of these are instances of the pandemic’s popular imagination, which draw from collective memory through “retrieval cues” (Erll, 2020, p. 867). In the middle of these happenings were also videos of people playing music from their balconies in Italy, reports of community action by students and youth in India, the achievements of Kerala in tackling COVID as reminders of a simultaneity of experience and solidarity.
This summary of events allows us to construct a picture of the pandemic: one involving the dual processes of unravelling of symbolic structures with incipient forms trying to emerge. This information was available to and often partaken of by people through social media, video conferencing softwares and messaging platforms making the lockdowns a digitally mediated experience.
The archive of information produced about COVID, and the photos and videos circulated across platforms created a shared corpus of symbols that can be invoked in discourse about COVID-19. The information can be more or less directly accessed through relevant tags on the internet. However, the search results may be incapable of being filtered efficiently due to the sheer volume of data produced in the same shadow archives since. That is perhaps the most pertinent criticism of social media as an archive as its often unhierarchised groupings make desired information hard to seek. Social media fails as an archive though because it privileges producing the new over carefully collating the old. Online publications and digital media are more reliable in this regard through their careful structuring and archiving methods. However, through the proliferation of information, there is often a disorienting effect (Means and Slater, p. 519), that prevents the creation of a lasting memory as new information always takes precedence over the old which lies “dormant” (Hoskins, p. 88). This is perhaps why COVID is seeing progressively less reportage from media outlets despite initial predictions about its fundamentally transformative nature. While COVID remains a reality today, its phenomenology has changed drastically as it has come to be accepted as part of the mundane.
A memorialising endeavour cannot serve as a reminder of the initial rupture only, as the event only achieves coherence after this stage (Wagner-Pacifici, 2016, p. 23). Therefore, one can only wait for the potentialities unearthed by COVID to continue to take shape as long as its destabilising kernel lies dormant, waiting to be remembered in the near future. This is a characteristic of the “anti-narrative” logic (Manovich, 1999, p. 82 qtd in Hoskins, 2018, p. 94) of the internet itself, as it is “perpetually incomplete” (p. 94), ever developing through participation. Every article, post, tweet, blog, comment or like contributes to the development of the discourse and invites more engagement in the same vein. Memory is ultimately being continuously modified and never stable.
A memorial serves as an externalised reminder of collective experiences. Hoskins’s work only highlights the difficulties faced in achieving that as collective memory, as icon and trace, loses its vitality in favour of participative forms, what he terms as the “connective turn” (p. 86). The internet and its participative logic creates incoherent collections of data, incapable of narrativising insofar as offering an end, a finitude (p. 94-5). The result is an inability to remember due to the act of archiving and recording taking precedence over remembering itself in the case of digital memory. This is further inhibited by the eroding sense of the collective defined by interests in favour of communities characterised by “hyperconnectivity” as the means and the end of digital memory.
The Case of the National COVID Memorial
The National COVID Memorial came up as an archive of the names of people who became victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. It contains a short text about the person alongside their photograph. Run by the Covid Care Network based out of Kolkata, the memorial’s description of itself gives us an idea of its shortcomings,
“The unsung tunes of our tribute to the Covid Martyrs are kept here in this National Covid Memorial. The nation does this with a heart that shower flowers at them, with pain that could never get expressed and heaps of salutes that they command for ever.” (“About”, 2021)
The use of militaristic imageries of martyrdom in a battle for the nation and its sovereignty undermines the conditions that precipitated those deaths by constructing COVID as an external threat and not a symptom of internal realities. Stark has pointed out how a militaristic response to COVID will only materialise disastrous consequences for future pandemics (p. 17). The invisibilisation of mismanagement on governmental levels and the insufficiency of the healthcare system only serve to construct COVID as a personal tragedy, common only to those who lost their lives to it rather than all of those who suffered related consequences like economic hardships and mental trauma. COVID therefore needs to be decoupled with death alone, especially to the backdrop of “long COVID” which is still a developing study (Soriano et al, 2021, p. 5). This requires a reworking of readings of cultural developments during COVID as an evolving condition and not a singular disease so that generative interpretations of pandemic memories may be evolved.
Banal Commemoration and Physical Memorial
Vinitzky-Seroussi called mundane and inconspicuous practices as features of banal commemoration (2016, p. 86). These include everyday practices that enter into the crevices of the popular unconscious. We see this happening with several features of the lockdown era like masks, which became iconically associated with COVID, sanitisers, temperature guns. Even certain speech practices have a palimpsestic meaning of COVID attached to them. Words like quarantine, lockdown and vaccine have become instantly identifiable with reportage on COVID. The argument is that these practices enter into collective memory through a process of naturalisation and are “always already” archived under the logic of the internet because of the frequently digital nature of their production and recall. This means that COVID as a memory will continue to be a part of the popular unconscious through traces such as these banal objects but it is already a history through it being archived.
In the contexts of trauma and trauma archives, the works of Veena Das (1985, p. 5) and Gabriella Ivacs (2016, p. 214) respectively point to an impulse for sharing traumatic experiences in victims. The need for externalisation of memories, to turn them into history is a continuing process as the “environments of memory” have diminished in favour of “sites of memory” (Nora, 1989, p. 7). Despite the promise of democratisation of memory, digital media has, in turn, effected an undoing of collective memory. With the digital, the motive behind the need to memorialise is altered insofar as it arises from the impulse to “participate” rather than to commemorate. Ivacs considers this when she argues that the “new” media affects an “ephemerality” (p. 206), thereby affecting the lasting nature of collective memory and its narratives. The existence of memory is denied even as, or perhaps due to, the continued digitisation of personal memories contributes to larger and larger digital archives. The memory of the multitude continues to develop as an ideologically shapeless form that is still directed by volume or intensity (Lowenthal, 2012, p. 3 as qtd in Hoskins, 2018, p. 89).
Kansteiner considers the possibility that as the size of the collective increases, the likelihood of being able to represent its collective memory decreases (2002, p. 193, qtd in Hoskins, 2018, p. 99), therefore it is entirely possible that a memorial may “pass into oblivion without shaping the historical imagination” of any collective (ibid.) That is a haunting possibility for any memorialising endeavour for COVID and as such, seems to depend largely upon the unfolding of the event of COVID under neoliberalism. Kurian raises more fundamental questions with respect to the memorialising tendency of the modern age, arguing that while mourning for the victims of COVID-19 should be a collective exercise (“Collective Mourning,” 2021), they cannot be memorialised unless there is an “acceptance of culpability” (“Why We Cannot Memorialise,” 2021, para 15). The important argument here being that unless there is a reinterpretation of COVID narratives with a view to producing enabling narratives, a memorial will only be a symbolically stunted endeavour. A physical memorial may even be constructed along the lines of the COVID memorial in Rajannapet village in India, the first village in India to achieve COVID resilience through 100% vaccination, or London’s National Covid Memorial Wall. However, the former lacks an acceptance of culpability while the latter is, as of now, a site for multiple narratives, due to its interpretive flexibility, and not necessarily enabling narratives.
In conclusion, due in part to increasing risks of newer pandemics and largely because of the digital medium, COVID narratives will be rewritten and overwritten consistently. Digital archives will continue to provide narratives in often unstructured forms for interpretation and one of the roles of memory studies vis-a-vis COVID and future pandemics will be to reinterpret them in the service of enabling narratives. After this discussion, perhaps the most effective memorial for COVID will be an informed and democratic policy on health.
About Covid Memorial. (2021). National Covid Memorial. http://www.nationalcovidmemorial.in/about-us.
Ang, I. (2021). Beyond the crisis: transitioning to a better world, Cultural Studies, 35:2-3, 598-615, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2021.1898013.
Das, Veena. (1985). Anthropological Knowledge and Collective Violence: The Riots in Delhi, November 1984. Anthropology Today, 1(3), 4–6. https://doi.org/10.2307/3033122.
Dein, Simon. (2021) Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives. Journal of Religion and Health, 60, 5-15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.
Erll, A. (2020). Afterword: Memory Worlds in Times of Corona. Memory Studies, 13(5), 861–874. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750698020943014.
Farhart, C. E. & Chen, P. G. (2022). Racialized Pandemic: The Effect of Racial Attitudes on COVID-19 Conspiracy Theory Beliefs. Frontiers in Political Science, 4, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpos.2022.648061.
Hoskins, A. (2018). Memory of the multitude: the end of collective memory. In Andrew Hoskins (Ed.), Digital Memory Studies (pp. 85-109). Routledge.
Inglis, D. (2016). Globalization and/of memory. In Anna Lisa Tota, & Trever Hagen (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies (pp.143-157). Routledge.
Ivacs, Gabriella. (2016). Digital trauma archives: the Yellow Star Houses Project. Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies (pp. 205-217). Routledge.
Kurian, Anna. (2021). Why We Should Collectively Mourn the COVID Dead. The Wire. https://thewire.in/rights/collective-mourning-covid-19-victims-memorial-india.
Kurian, Anna. (2021). Why We Cannot Memorialise the COVID-19 Dead. The Wire. https://thewire.in/rights/why-we-cannot-memorialise-the-covid-19-dead.
Means, A. J. & Slater, G. B. (2021). Collective disorientation in the pandemic conjuncture. Cultural Studies, 35(2-3), 514-522. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2021.1898030.
Meyer, E. (2008). Memory and Politics. In Astrid Erll, & Ansgar Nünning (Eds.), Media and Cultural Memory (pp. 174-180). Walter de Gruyter.
Nora, Pierre. (1989). Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations, 26, 7–24. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928520.
Pandey, G. (2021). Hundreds of corpses have been found floating in the river or buried in the sand of its banks. BBC News Delhi. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-57154564.
Siddiqui, D. (2021). A mass cremation of victims who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2021. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/india/mass-cremations-begin-indias-capital-faces-deluge-covid-19-deaths-2021-04-23/.
Soriano, J. B. et al (2021). A clinical case definition of post COVID-19 condition by a Delphi consensus. World Health Organisation. 1-19. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-2019-nCoV-Post_COVID-19_condition-Clinical_case_definition-2021.1.
Stark, A. (2020). “COVID-19 is this generation’s 9/11.: Let’s make sure we apply the right lessons. Democracy Beyond COVID-19: The Politics of Crisis Policymaking. 16–19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25415.6.
Vinitzky-Seroussi, V. (2016). Banal commemoration. Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies (pp. 84-92). Routledge.
Wagner-Pacifici. (2016). Reconceptualizing memory as event: from “difficult pasts” to “restless events. Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies (pp. 22-27). Routledge.
Utkarsh Sharma is an independent researcher having completed his graduate studies from the University of Hyderabad. His research interests include memory studies, utopian studies, and COVID-19 cultures, especially to the backdrop of postcolonialism.