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BERLIN — In mid-April, more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave hit Europe, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier organized a national “day of remembrance” for the more than 80,000 Germans who have died of COVID-19.
The day featured a commemorative event held in Berlin’s Konzerthaus, with speeches by Steinmeier and Germans who had lost loved ones to the virus.
“We as a society do not make ourselves aware often enough that behind all the numbers, there are fates and people,” Steinmeier said. “Their suffering and death have often remained invisible to the public. A society that suppresses this suffering will be damaged as a whole.”
The date of the event was announced back in early February, but it ultimately fell during the country’s deadly third wave — and just as the German Bundestag was set to approve the country’s strictest anti-coronavirus measures yet. In the end, the final guest list for the event included just 17 people: seven government officials and 10 citizens.
The pared-down commemoration in Berlin illustrated a pressing question currently facing Europe: How should countries mark the impact of the coronavirus while the disease continues to rage across much of the Continent?
Taking time to remember the many thousands of people who have died from the virus is an important part of processing the pandemic on an individual and societal level, experts say, but the disease has upended normal mourning rituals by drastically limiting opportunities to gather.
“It’s clear this is preliminary: We don’t know how many dead we will have, and we don’t know what story we will build out of this,” said Astrid Erll, a professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt and founder of the Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform. “But I don’t think it’s too strange to do these … we have the feeling as a society that we need to put things on hold for a moment and to have a first round of commemoration.”
Balancing that need to acknowledge the human toll of the pandemic with the fact that it’s far from over — and gathering in large groups remains dangerous — is the latest test for officials who are now well into year two of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis.
Different countries have taken different approaches: Some have held national events or designated days of mourning, while others have put together commemorative spaces where people can come to reflect. Sometimes these efforts come from national governments themselves, and sometimes they’re from outside organizations, or even opposition parties.
The timing has also differed from country to country. Spain, hard hit by the first wave of the pandemic, opted to hold a commemorative event last July. About 400 attendees, including top EU officials, sat in socially distanced concentric circles surrounding a memorial with a burning flame, and relatives of those who had died laid white roses next to the memorial.
In the U.K., a group of charities and aid organizations, including the British Red Cross and Marie Curie, which supports the terminally ill, organized a “national day of reflection” on March 23. Along with leading politicians, they asked citizens to observe a moment of silence and organize local and small-scale commemorations in line with social distancing rules.
But Europe’s third wave this spring has complicated plans for large-scale events. In February, with critical-care beds in Italy once again full, officials opted to scale down their commemorative plans: A ceremony in Brescia, to mark the first anniversary of the virus’ arrival in the country, was canceled on health grounds.
A month later, Italy observed March 18 — the day in 2020 when the death toll in the city of Bergamo was so high that the army had to start transporting coffins — as its first annual national day of mourning. Prime Minister Mario Draghi spoke at the inauguration of a memorial park, where hundreds of trees were planted for the victims in the hard-hit region.
“This wood doesn’t only contain the memory of the many victims,” he said. “This place is a symbol of the pain of an entire nation.”
Those same considerations were in the minds of officials in Germany, who faced criticism for going ahead with their April event despite rising case numbers. Knowing the situation could quickly shift ahead of the event, they prepared three different possible scenarios of varying sizes; the 17-person version they settled on was the smallest-scale option. Officials coordinated with the German broadcaster ZDF to adapt the event for television so people could watch from home.
A representative from Steinmeier’s office said they felt it was important to go ahead with the event for three main reasons. First, to honor those who have died as a result of the virus a year after the first wave began; second, to acknowledge the other kinds of suffering that have taken place during the pandemic; and third, to help bridge what they saw as a growing gap between politicians and the public.
“In this whole pandemic, there’s been a lack of empathy and public acknowledgment of pain — and that is an urgent problem, because it drives a wedge in society,” the representative said. “And therefore we said we simply can’t wait: One year into the pandemic is an important milestone, and we have to do something around this anniversary.”
The event itself used intentional symbolism to demonstrate the connection between government officials and citizens. Five Germans spoke about loved ones they have lost to the virus, and afterward carried a candle to the center of the stage. Each one was accompanied by the head of one of Germany’s five branches of government — President Steinmeier, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, Bundesrat President Rainer Haseloff and Constitutional Court President Stephan Harbarth.
That choreography “was a very low-key but evocative signal,” said Aleida Assmann, a professor emeritus at the University of Konstanz and a leading expert on memory culture. “It was an expression of solidarity: The person who had to represent their family member who died and the person who had state authority were on exactly the same level.”
Elsewhere, governments, opposition movements and other organizations have found ways to create commemorative public spaces that honor the victims without one specific event or a mass gathering.
An island memorial
On Margaret Island in the Hungarian capital Budapest, the opposition New World People’s Party placed more than 20,000 stones — each one listing a victim’s age and a number — to commemorate those in the country who had died from the virus. A “National Covid Memorial Wall” along the banks of the River Thames in London was painted with thousands of small red hearts to commemorate British victims.
In the Czech capital Prague, a civic group called “Million Moments for Democracy” painted 25,000 crosses onto the cobblestones in the city’s iconic Old Town Square to mark the number of victims and criticize the government for its handling of the country’s deadly virus surges.
“Dissatisfaction is growing in society,” the group wrote in an open letter to the Czech government. “To date, 24,810 people have died. They were our loved ones, friends, parents and grandparents, colleagues from work.”
The makeshift monument ultimately took on a life of its own: People began chalking names and dates next to individual crosses, turning it into both a space for individual mourning and collective reflection.
The current spate of commemorative events is only the first step in a mourning process that won’t conclude until long after the pandemic ends, said the University of Konstanz’s Assmann. While it can be worthwhile to stop to reflect on what’s happened thus far, it’s impossible to build a collective memory or a historical narrative surrounding the coronavirus while we’re still in the middle of it.
“For every narrative you need a beginning and an ending, and you need some idea of tension that is built up and then resolved at the end,” she said. “And that’s really what we’re lacking.”