After Covid we must remember the brave and the lost - but how?

PABest Soldiers helping with the mass covid testing on Merseyside stand during a two minute silence

Soldiers helping in a mass Covid testing centre stand during a two minute silence to remember the war dead on Armistice Day. - Credit: PA

So far 115,000 people have died of coronavirus in the UK.

That appalling figure amounts to more fallen Britons than in any modern conflict apart from the two world wars.

During the First World War, nearly 750,000 people from the UK and its colonies died. These people are rightly remembered every year at 11am on November 11 when the country stops.

But in the year or so after the war around 250,000 Britons also died from the Spanish Flu.

The tradition of falling silent started in 1919 while the deadly flu was still circulating.


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The week before November 11 that year, King George V wrote a letter to the British people.

It read: "I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of that great deliverance and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.

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"To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities.

"During that time, except in the rare cases where this may be impracticable, all work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease, so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead."

The First World War is the first conflict of which there were widespread commemorations.

Before 1919 there were statues of great men — such as Nelson — but the rank and file slipped from the collective memory.

This changed after the Great War, largely because of who the dead were. Earlier in history, soldiers were often press-ganged into enlisting, or were seen as having joined up to escape a life of poverty.

But from 1916, every single man between 18 and 40 was liable to be called up if they were not in a reserved occupation. 

And that is why the way we remember the war dead has been moulded post-1918.

Using war metaphors when talking about disease is often counter-productive. People do not die because they 'lost' to an illness, for instance.

But when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember everyone and sacrifices that they made. 

Everyone in the country has been affected by the pandemic in some way. It has been almost a year of collective national hardship.

That 115,000 figure is more than the civilian casualties sustained in the two world wars combined.

The people who died, rightly, must be remembered. But the people who worked on the wards, who made the medicines and who stocked the shelves must be remembered as well.

Broadening the people rewarded with in the New Year's honours list beyond the usual actors, sport stars and musicians was a good start. 

But monuments to singular 'great men' of the pandemic alone are not enough — even the inestimable Captain Tom.

It has been a collective effort and everyone should be remembered for what they have gone through.

From the nurses who suffer from PTSD after working night and day on the wards, to the children who missed out on valuable time to learn and develop.

We have all suffered in some way.

Some will say they would rather try to forget the pandemic and the physical or mental scars it leaves behind.

But without actively remembering what has happened we are less likely to understand the past and more likely to repeat it.

More widespread commemorations of the Spanish Flu may not have saved many lives this time around but a greater understanding of what a pandemic is and how their effects are best mitigated may have sped up decisions and perhaps made them easier.

While we are still living through the pandemic it is probably too soon to properly understand how to best commemorate it, but when the time comes we must remember everyone's experiences.

For now, let us just hope the time when we can debate how we remember the pandemic is not far away. 

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