The way COVID-19 is officially commemorated will shape our ability to respond to a second wave

focus on COVID-19 deaths as a statistic, rather than its impact on individuals and communities, fails to recognise how COVID-19 has impacted the UK
- Dr Katharine Millar

To effectively prepare for new waves of COVID-19 and future pandemics, the government should plan how to commemorate COVID-19 now, or risk heightened social division, research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) reveals. 

According to a new report from LSE’s Department for International Relations, the UK government should undertake measures such as; designating a national day of mourning, establishing a collective history project across the UK and creating a fund to support local and regional commemoration and memorialisation projects, to ensure that COVID-19 is remembered in an inclusive way that prepares the public for future health crises.  

The researchers warn how ill-judged government messaging can contribute to exclusionary forms of commemoration, in which the suffering and deaths caused by COVID-19 are not recognised amongst groups already marginalised by racial, economic, geographic, and health inequalities. This exclusion may not only exacerbate social divisions and undercut attempts at building social cohesion, they caution, but also limit the reach of important information about the pandemic.  

The report draws on comparative evidence from the UK, Germany, Italy and South Korea, as well as a historical case study of the 1918 Flu pandemic. It highlights the central role played by government communications in shaping a collective understanding of COVID-19 deaths and how these messages are key to forming behaviours that can protect the public from subsequent waves of COVID-19 and future pandemics. 

Decisions by governments over how they communicated information about deaths from COVID-19 differed with significant consequences. In the UK the emphasis on the numbers of deaths as an indicator for how close the country was to returning to normal contrasts with the approach of the Italian and South Korean governments, which focused more on the individual and community experiences of grief and death. 

Commenting on the UK response Dr Katharine Millar said: “The UK government’s focus on COVID-19 deaths as a statistic, rather than its impact on individuals and communities, fails to recognise how COVID-19 has impacted the UK population differently. Ultimately, this leaves space for competing interpretations of the pandemic to develop over the coming months and years, which has the potential to increase social discord as groups struggle for recognition.” 

Dr Yuna Han said: “Although South Korea suffered lower numbers of deaths as a result of COVID-19, the government’s approach to communicating information about death at an individual and community level, enabled it to more effectively share information about the spread of the virus and measures that could be taken to prevent its spread.”  

Dr Martin Bayly said: “The example of the 1918 Flu Pandemic shows how pandemics do not last long in the public memory. The decision made not to commemorate likely impacted the UK’s ability to come to terms with and prepare for subsequent pandemics. We shouldn’t make the same mistake of failing to take in and pass on knowledge that has been hard earned during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

As the Italian and German governments have begun to develop plans for commemorating COVID-19, the research makes clear the need for a concerted plan to meaningfully commemorate and make sense of the losses suffered in the wake of COVID-19.