Why the pandemic failed to capture our collective imagination

By Guy Ward-Jackson, Editor-in-Chief

What do you remember from the pandemic? Yes, those endless lockdowns which involved binge-watching Netflix shows, occasionally flicking on the television to watch Boris (remember him?) telling us to stay at home–presumably just before popping off to some No.10 drinks–and perhaps even a socially-distanced walk with a friend. 

For many, those months (roughly sixteen in total) feel like a blur. Time was stretched and contorted, both infinite and brief. Sometimes we forget that the whole phenomenon only ended relatively recently, akin to Thanos’s snap in one of those endless Marvel movies.

But what happened to our collective memory during that period? Where was the closure? There was, of course, no VE-Day. There have been no great memorials built for those lost to the virus. No museums to commemorate the global epidemic. Just a gradual acclimatisation to normal life, only noticing once in a while that small things, such as never using paper money, have changed. Like waking up from the Matrix, realising that a significant chunk of your life was not real. 

Memory & Time

In an article by Josh Glancy for The Times a while back, writing on a similar topic of memory in lockdown, he questions whether time during the pandemic was linear or circular. He comes to the conclusion that it was ‘like a pretzel’; not quite cyclical, but nevertheless having no direction, beginning, middle, or end. 

Our memory does not work chronologically but rather, as Glancy points out, as a ‘series of discrete episodes and events’. Like a kaleidoscope, the brain does not remember via time per se, but instead by visuals, social interaction, or moments of emotion: parties, holidays, job interviews. 

As Dr Daisy Fancourt points out, perpetual lockdowns led to ‘our lives being reduced to predictable patterns without variety’, and thus having a ‘dramatic effect on how we perceive time’. 

What this implies is that, on an individual level, much of that sixteen months constitutes a memory vacuum.

Silent Victims

And what of the 6.3 million people who lost their lives? The millions of students who fell behind in their education. The astonishing number of those still unvaccinated around the world, and the long-term impacts that this will likely have. Or those who could not say goodbye to their loved-ones. 

Beyond the death toll, the more oblique impacts of the pandemic – whether social, economic, or psychological –  are hard to quantify. What is clear, though, is the lack of emotional resolution many have had. Indeed, the tragedy of coronavirus has not just been the death toll, but the lack of cause or meaning which can be given to the tragedy. Far from a sense of closure, victims of the virus have been met with silence.

‘Imagined Communities’ and National Narratives

No narrative has been produced surrounding the pandemic. But why does this matter?. 

In Benedict Anderson’s celebrated magnum opus–Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism–his primary interest is in how we, as nations, construct ‘imagined communities’. The paradox which Anderson underlines is that ‘We never meet the vast majority of the millions of people who make up our nation, but we imagine we share common characteristics with them’. In essence, therefore, nations–or any groups–construct identity by becoming greater than the sum of their constituent parts (their ‘parts’ being individuals). 

Football matches, the Queen, and pubs are examples of important cultural tenets that make us think of ourselves as a ‘British’ community. Pandemics, however, seemingly don’t have the same effect. Boris Johnson certainly tried to construct a narrative surrounding the otherwise mundane experience of successive lockdowns. Rhetoric encapsulating “a struggle for humanity” and keeping “that virus at bay” tapped into Churchillian wartime language and ‘Blitz-Spirit’. However, Johnson is no Churchill, and the pandemic was no war. As Ivan Krastev points out in his book, Is It Tomorrow Yet, ‘In war you can construct a narrative that you are dying and fighting for some higher purpose. But not here. How can you tell your children about the heroism of staying at home and watching Netflix?’.

Of course, there were those on the frontline: NHS workers, those in care-homes, and more widely people who simply could not work from home because their jobs demanded it. But look how quickly we have forgotten this. There is no ‘National NHS Coronavirus Day’. Even the national collectivism engendered by the first March lockdown has quickly evaporated, morphing back into political partisanship once more. 

Conversely, the aftermath of the Second World War did witness a degree of national consensus: the Beveridge Report of 1942 formed the foundation of the modern British welfare state. Moreover, for the following two decades or so after 1945, the Labour and Conservative Parties battled notably for the middle-ground of politics, looking to ride the tide of the ‘post-war consensus’. 

Perhaps, therefore, the seeming lack of narrative which has derived from the pandemic is evidence that it simply does not offer enough political or social functionality. Unfortunately, to politicians such as Johnson, toxic culture wars are far more lucrative forms of political currency than narratives of unity. While consensus used to be a driving force for politics, division now seems to dominate as an electoral strategy. 

A Missed Opportunity?

Though national narratives can be dangerous, they can also be healing and unifying. They can bring meaning to death and sacrifice. I fear that we have not taken enough steps to find solidarity in our collective experience of the pandemic both nationally and globally. We will move forward, as we should, to the great issues that face our generation: climate change, cost-of-living, inequality, a ‘New Cold War’, populism, poverty, racism, Western stagnation – to name a few. But I have a feeling we will scarcely look back.

Guy Ward-Jackson

Guy Ward-Jackson (he/him) is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Blue for Michaelmas term. Previous roles include Senior Editor of News, Senior Editor of Investigations, BlueLight, and Junior Editor of Global Affairs. Currently second, going into third year studying history at Trinity.