Essay

Generation Covid

Crafting history and collective memory

APRIL IS MY favourite time of year in Melbourne. The weather is comparatively stable and the days warm, richly complementing the autumn colours. In 2020 there was even more time to enjoy them than usual, and the late summer rains seemed to have deepened the autumn hues. Or perhaps the unfolding pandemic sharpened my vision. The skies were clear, absent of planes and the usual April smog, and the sounds of nature were no longer buried by the constant cacophony of industrialised cities. As I took the opportunity to breathe and look up, the rapid unravelling of the world as I knew it created its own kind of vertigo.

‘Unprecedented’ quickly became the word of the year. In Australia it had already had a good workout with the megafires that engulfed the country during our ‘savage summer’.[1] The smoke from that ecological catastrophe had only just begun to clear when a coronavirus started to ravage the world. If climate change was already playing havoc with our sense of time – a projected future of environmental Armageddon pressing ever closer – the COVID-­19 pandemic, itself a symptom of ecological breakdown, further upended our temporal realities.

Early on in the pandemic, journalists looked repeatedly to historians to help make sense of what was happening and to read from the past the possible impacts of this moment on the future. Experts on past pandemics tried to shed light on how we might recover, and on the prospective local and global consequences of this COVID-­19 catastrophe. Many sought equivalence, hesitating, as historians usually do, to use the word ‘unprecedented’. But just as the fires of last summer were unprecedented in scale, intensity and devastation, so the speed with which the COVID-­19 virus infected the world and the dramatic nature of its fallout is without parallel. From the enforced intimacy of Melbourne’s extended lockdown to global geopolitical structures, any certainty we had felt about the future has been thrown into doubt. What might the past offer us at this moment, and how will future generations reflect on this year? How will this present become the future’s past?

Historians find remnants of the past in libraries and archives, in objects, monuments and buildings, in fields and forests, in music and art and images, in memories and stories. These are our laboratories, our test tubes, our data. This is where we find the roads not taken, the possibilities foreclosed, the thinking that shapes a culture, the choices made that, sometimes through the slow accretion of time and action and sometimes suddenly and dramatically, change outcomes and ‘make history’. We know that history is not always a good guide to predicting the future, that the lessons from the past are too complicated to fit into a comfortable slogan that history might ‘teach’. We also know that history can offer startling insights into the present, explaining how and why we got to where we find ourselves, or even how people and states are likely to behave when a pandemic reaches their shores.

History has other offerings in times of crisis: it can be an anchor, a solace, a source of meaning. As a storeroom of individual and collective memories it can nourish our souls; as a dark place of conflict and pain it can remind us of how close the abyss can be, and how we might survive it. [2] These memories and stories are crucial as we look towards the future and wonder how the past might help us face the unknown. Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘The stories we tell about who we were and what we did shape what we can and will do.’ [3] Different kinds of stories help us imagine possible futures.

 

‘COLLECTIVE MEMORY’ IS a term historians use to refer to the ways the public ‘remembers’ an event or a period of time. It is the version that gets publicly told, endorsed and reworked through films and history books, commemorative activities, monuments and school curricula. The further back in time an event occurred, the more abstracted the collective memory of it becomes.

Think Anzac, now one of our most carefully curated memories. In the immediate post-­World War I period, understandings of what the war had meant for the nation were highly contested. Defeat at Gallipoli, 60,000 lives lost (the highest death rate among the Allied forces), a divided and grieving home-­front community and an economy in shreds were not obvious raw materials from which to build a narrative about heroic manhood and the founding of the nation. Historians played a key role in creating that narrative. CEW Bean crafted it carefully, selecting the stories that would best illustrate the history he wanted to tell, and then campaigning for a monument and museum that would house and celebrate that story – the Australian War Memorial. Anzac provided a healing narrative that gave solace to grieving families and the nation alike. It helped make sense of unimaginable loss. But the battle over who would control the legend continued for decades.

The resurrection of the Anzac legend began in the 1980s, seventy years after the Dardanelles defeat, and while the reasons for that revival are complex, it was fuelled by government, powerful interest groups, the media, filmmakers and writers captive to the myth and its endless potential for reinvention. By the time Alec Campbell, the last surviving veteran of the Gallipoli campaign, died in Tasmania 2002 aged 103, he had become ‘The Last Anzac’, an ‘Anzac Legend’. Campbell’s lifetime activities as a unionist and peace activist were written out of the script for the state funeral that celebrated his life. The six weeks he had spent at Gallipoli carrying drinking water from the beach to thirsty troops were harnessed for national agendas that had nothing to do with him as a soldier or civilian. His long and varied life, including as a jackaroo, carpenter, railway-carriage builder, mature-­age university student, public servant, research officer, historian, husband and father, became irrelevant, and his socialist, anti-­fascist politics were too radical for the Anzac embrace. [4]

Many historians have contributed excellent work to complicate the public memory of Anzac and to contest the easy platitudes of nation-­making mythology that have conveniently distracted us from other, more troubling stories: mental illness and suicide among returned servicemen; the intergenerational legacies of war for families; and the wars fought against Aboriginal land owners on our colonial and state frontiers, to name a few. A collective memory that turns defeat into victory and only celebrates the comfortable, reassuring narratives of fortitude and collective endeavour in the face of hardship does not serve a nation well when it is faced with a pandemic that has exposed the fissures and fractures in every system the virus infects.

When the COVID-­19 virus derailed our lives in March 2020, our nation’s fixation with World War I and Anzac seemed even more askew. It was to the stories of the Spanish flu, the Great War’s tragic endnote, that we needed to turn – but where were its histories? Why was there no collective memory of this event, no monument to the nurses who cared for the afflicted, no memorial commemorating the 15,000 who died in Australia alone? In comparative terms, that would correspond to about 75,000 deaths in this country today. It wasn’t that we hadn’t known about the pandemic, but it had mostly been relegated to a devastating epilogue to World War I – despite killing fifty million people worldwide, perhaps twice as many as military and civilian deaths caused by the war itself. The handful of historians who had been paying attention to the Spanish flu pandemic were suddenly in demand, sought by a media and public keen for stories on how that quarantine had been managed, what restrictions were imposed, how people had coped.[5] Historical pictures of masked civilians walking the streets provoked a shock of recognition.

 

HISTORIANS KNOW THAT the stories a nation tells itself matter; collective memory can suppress competing versions of the past, while individual and family stories might hold conflicting memories. Our work has been crucial in shaping and dismantling, telling and retelling the narratives through which we have come to think of ourselves as a nation. We have colluded in the silences of colonial dispossession, the erasure of women’s voices and the celebration of environmental-­wreckage-­as-­progress, as much as we have, ‘in alliances with communities of action’, found voices that have challenged the racist and sexist hierarchies on which such histories were founded.[6] History is no longer the preserve of elite white men. Today’s writers of history, as a group, better reflect the diversity of the histories we now tell. These histories have enabled a more robust and complex understanding of the nation’s past, one with reservoirs of stories about community cohesion in the face of extreme adversity, agency and resistance in response to generations of subjugation.

It’s important to note, however, that many of those stories have not been framed as ‘national’, but rather as histories of specific groups of people. Their essence has not been abstracted to a national stage and inflected with the power to carry us forward as Australians in periods of existential crisis. It is time to bring these marginalised group stories into the national story so that we all learn from them as a nation: understand their morals and enact their lessons. Such an embrace would provide the opportunity for a more honest reckoning with our past, a more authentic reflection of our collective present and richer traditions from which to draw as we face an uncertain future.

Aboriginal Australians’ stories of living with changing environments over at least 60,000 years, and their stories of continued survival despite 240 years of colonisation and its devastating legacies – including deadly pandemics – contain deep reservoirs of knowledge of adaptation and ‘ancient sovereignty’ that, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart so profoundly proclaims, ‘can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’. This radical reimagining of the nation’s history and future is possible if settler Australians accept the invitation offered in the statement to ‘walk with’ Aboriginal Australians ‘in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’.[7] The offer remains open.

The post-­World War II migration narrative is frequently told as one in which the settler Australian community gradually came to embrace the riches of multiculturalism and grew stronger and more tolerant in the process. ‘We’ welcomed ‘them’ and on their backs built the prosperity of our postwar world. But the extraordinary hardships faced by post-­World War II refugees and immigrants also hold powerful and poignant examples of human fortitude and extraordinary courage, and many within those communities celebrate their resilience and survival. Those stories have been marginalised in the national narrative. It is time to move them centre stage, time to recognise that the sacrifices that make nations are not only made on battlefields, but in fleeing wars and their aftermaths, in navigating uncertainty, in working to rebuild shattered lives, livelihoods and families.

The survivors from generations who lived through the Great Depression or World War II, many of them subsequently Australia’s postwar migrants, are among the Covid casualties from our aged-­care facilities. They are the generation that helped create our contemporary world. Daily obituaries in The Age told their stories, their experiences of mass unemployment, war, widespread rationing, poverty and few social services, and presented illuminating stories of hardship, endurance and the importance of community.

But if these histories of survival, community and resilience offer stories from the past that might provide anchorage and solace through this pandemic, the pandemic itself is generating its own stories – and it seems unlikely that they will be as readily forgotten as those of the Spanish flu, particularly by Victorians. By late spring 2020, the disruption to our lives and the economic and psychological fallout were already so profound that the year had etched its way ineluctably into our collective consciousness. But beyond the COVID-­19 case count, the exposure of an economic system contingent on precarity and inequality, and the incriminating tally of aged-­care deaths, what memories might linger and take shape in the generations who live to look back on this watershed year?

 

IT IS FAR too early to predict where this particular historical tide will settle and how this moment of crisis will be recalled. We are still living this story, still captured by the drama of its unfolding, navigating our way along a shoreline none of us has walked before. We can know, however, that there will be different versions of this story and contests over who gets to tell them. That contest began early as the initial wave of infections was receding. Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared Australia the poster child for the world on how to handle the coronavirus, nodded to New Zealand’s success and, in May, urged Victorians to get out from under the doona – there was an economy to rebuild. When Victoria endured an extended stage-­four lockdown through August, September and October, and the economy entered its deepest recession in one hundred years, the debate sharpened between how many lives we were prepared to lose versus how many livelihoods we would sacrifice. The economic hawks were circling.

Yet from the pandemic’s beginnings, one narrative forecast it as the moment when the world’s axis might tilt towards something more equal, caring, humane and ecologically sustainable. Like previous pandemics, suggested the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, this one provided the opportunity to imagine the world anew: ‘a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas… Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’[8] In Australia, former Greens senator Scott Ludlam imagined the white supremacist mask slipping, an aversion of ecological catastrophe and a society where ‘the oldest living culture on earth’ became ‘the foundation for a movement of justice and peace’,[9] while writer Anne Manne imagined the birth of the ‘Universal Caregiver Society’.[10]

If 2020 does prove to be a rupture in our previous trajectory, that contingency will entirely depend on what happens next, be that further pandemics and climate catastrophes or a radical rewind of our carbon emissions and a restructuring of our economy. Either way, the memories we take forward from this time will be a mix of stories. They will be drawn from individuals and families and gradually coalesce into a broader cultural narrative, one in turn shaped by more powerful forces seeking to draw national significance and meaning from the disaster. There will be battles over this collective memory, just as there have been with Anzac. The ‘Covid generation’ will bring their own distinct memories to shape the national story.

The sense that a generation carries a distinct identity is forged by sharing the ‘experience of profound and destabilising events’. Those events have their greatest impact if people experience them young, typically in their late teens and early twenties. Generational consciousness is shaped by the sharing of those dramatic events, their subsequent remembering and the recognition, often by older generations, of the distinctiveness of a generational experience or mode of self-representation.[11]

The generation currently in their late teens and early twenties – the Covid generation – already had cause to be worried about their future. Indeed, in 2018 and 2019, hundreds of thousands of them had filled city streets to call for action on climate change and for an end to our dependence on fossil fuels. Fearful of the ecological breakdown overshadowing their futures and inspired by the example and leadership of Greta Thunberg, the climate strikers demanded that adults start behaving as adults should when their house is on fire. With an intoxicating sense that millions around the world shared their passion, and undaunted by the white male leaders who dismissed their rage with a mixture of condescension, misogyny and ridicule, this generation thought transformation was within its reach. ‘Climate momentum’ was building, and with it the hope that it might not be too late to stall the creeping catastrophe of climate change.[12]

In 2020, those young people found themselves stuck at home with remote learning, their rites of passage cancelled, their plans upended, their casual labour no longer required, their collective protests in city streets ruled illegal, their sense of agency curtailed by a microscopic virus with its origins in the ecological breakdown they fear. Many joined the long unemployment queues snaking outside Centrelink offices. While they are in the age bracket least likely to suffer serious health effects from the coronavirus, they are the generation most likely to struggle to find employment in the post-­pandemic world, and the ones who, along with their younger siblings, will be carrying the debt burden of the government’s relief measures for the longest.

The fragility of their future is suddenly even more immediately apparent. Not since their great-­grandparents were young has an Australian generation lived with such uncertainty, such a profound sense that the future is out of its control. When the cataclysmic events of the Great Depression imploded into another world war, they left a lasting legacy on the generation who lived through these twinned disasters. The scarring impact of economic insecurity and the embodied knowledge of the fragility of life went on to underpin a commitment in the 1950s and ’60s to secure employment and a belief in the values of thrift and personal sacrifice.[13] For the Covid generation, the return of overwhelming uncertainty cuts deeply in a cohort for whom anxiety and depression were already being described as a pandemic and in a context where mental health was a growing source of national disquiet. They might remember that feeling in their future – or it might not be mere memory. In fifty years’ time, living with anxiety and uncertainty may be a normal part of the human experience, a consequence of the disruption and havoc of environmental degradation.

Which stories will the Covid generation remember from 2020 – twenty, thirty, fifty years from now? They might remember their mothers. One of the fault lines of the pandemic has been gender. More jobs have been lost in female-­dominated sectors than in male-­dominated ones, and yet the government’s ‘road to recovery’ and the federal budget paves the path ahead with millions of dollars for the construction industry but nothing to support women’s employment. Gender inequality is being fortified. While men’s participation in childcare has increased slightly with working-­from-­home arrangements, women have continued to carry the major load, as well as the bulk of the housework.[14] The juggle of working while home-­schooling their children has taken its toll on women. But it is not just their mother’s physical, reproductive or educative labour that today’s children might remember as adults. It’s the exhaustion, the fractious tone, the worried face, the weight of emotional labour carried by the maternal body that seeks to keep the family peace amid job losses, health concerns, aged parents, anxious children and a future, including her own, that suddenly looks as fragile as the one her grandparents faced in the Great Depression. Handed-­down stories of telephone books used for toilet paper suddenly made sense of the supermarket scrambles to fill trolleys with precious rolls of soft white tissue.

The Covid generation might also remember living in families where precarity and uncertainty were daily realities. The pandemic has functioned as an X-­ray of inequality, revealing the cracks in our social fabric. Will the image of Melbourne’s public housing towers – in which, as the Victorian premier admitted, some of the state’s most vulnerable communities lived – locked down and encircled by police, or the anxious face of a young child gazing from an upper-­floor window, become part of the city’s collective memory? Maps have shown a swathe of privilege cutting through Melbourne’s suburbs, marking those areas least affected by COVID-­19, while those who lived and worked in the most Covid-­affected suburbs were predominantly the lowest paid and those who keep our city functioning: aged-­care workers, health carers, delivery people, transport drivers, meat workers, cleaners, child-­carers.

Let them remember, too, alongside all the failures of our systems that have been exposed by the pandemic, the many examples of community strength and collective endeavour. For more than eight months, five million Victorians sacrificed personal freedoms to protect those most vulnerable to the virus. Many thousands also acted with generosity and selflessness to support and care for those in need. Australians around the country made similar sacrifices. Thirty years of neoliberalism’s promotion of individual merit and rights may have dented our sense of community and our belief in collective responsibility, and left us in a weakened state to confront a pandemic – as the US example has so vividly exposed. But we are not the US, and we have not sunk so far into reactionary individualism that we have abandoned a sense of collective responsibility. The body politic is not yet terminally ill.

 

IT IS LATE 2020 as I write this, and the vertigo of the pandemic’s early days has subsided. A surety of footing, however, remains elusive. ‘Covid-­normal’ is a world still in the making, and its contours are only slowly becoming defined. In a time of radical uncertainty, however, we have the space to reimagine the future, to create it with ideas and actions, ‘new visions of what can and should be’.[15] But if we are to transform this ‘great unravelling’ into what ecophilosopher Joanna Macy calls the ‘great turning’, we need to not only rebuild our economic system based on renewable energy and protecting people over privileging profit; we also need to articulate the ethics and the values that we will carry through this portal.[16] The national stories we tell at this time are crucial. We need stories of adaptation and survival, of resilience and sacrifice, of rebuilding lives shattered by world events, of campaigning for justice, of hope and possibilities.

It is time to tell new national narratives about ourselves. To step away from the abstracted stories drawn from Anzac mythology, to embrace the margins of our past and the fault lines of the present in stories from our First Nations peoples, from our immigrant and refugee communities, from women, the disabled, the marginalised, from those who have struggled against oppression in its myriad forms. Stories to guide us as we navigate paths unknown.

Too many obituaries have already been written as a result of this pandemic. But I hope for one more. I hope for an obituary to neoliberalism. When the Covid generation remember 2020 and the time that came just after, may they remember the power of community action, collective responsibility and the strength of our diverse body politic. May they remember the way the passion for change that they carried onto the streets in 2018 and 2019 gradually infected us all, countering the poison of complacency and the power of the fossil-fuel industry alike. May they recall a government that, as in the postwar period, invested heavily in employment schemes, in the welfare state, in social housing and higher education;[17] a government willing to make the connections between the droughts, fires and floods that have ravaged our land in the past three years and the pandemic that has ruptured our world, and to act in response – belatedly but definitively – to protect the future. And may they celebrate and commemorate a community whose vision, sharpened by these unprecedented times, determined that the history they made and bequeathed would be infused with the values of care, stewardship and justice.

21 October 2020

Note: This essay has been shaped by many conversations. In particular I thank the Melbourne Life Writers, especially Chips Sowerwine, Ian Britain and Alistair Thomson, as well as Lindsey Earner-­Byrne and Roland Burke.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Tom Griffiths, ‘Savage Summer’, Inside Story, 8 January 2020, https://insidestory.org.au/savage-summer/

[2] Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft (Carlton, Victoria: Black Inc, 2016), 10; James Dunk, 'Past Tense. History: What is it Good For?', Write Around the Murray Online Festival, 12 September 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nIZYUf1FbA.

[3] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rev. ed.. (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016), xviii.

[4] Rowan Cahill, ‘Alec Campbell, 1899-2002’, https://www.labourhistory.org.au/hummer/vol-3-no-8/alec-campbell/

[5] Anthea Hyslop, Peter Hobbins and Mary Sheehan are among the few Australian historians who have studied the Spanish flu pandemic. See also Eric Eklund’s forthcoming article '"The dreaded pneumonic influenza has made its appearance amongst us": The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Gippsland, Victoria', Australian Historical Studies 52, no. 1 (2021)

[6] Tamson Pietsch and Frances Flanagan, ‘Here We Stand: Temporal Thinking in Urgent Times’, History Australia 17, no. 2 (2020): 252–71, https://doi.org/10.1080/14490854.2020.1758577.

[7] https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement

[8] Arundhati Roy, ‘The pandemic is a portal’, Financial Times, 4 April 2020, www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

[9] Scott Ludlam, ‘Love Letter from 2029: I want you to know we did it, we turned the ship around’, The Guardian, 20 July 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/jul/30/love-letter-from-2029-i-want-you-to-know-we-did-it-we-turned-the-ship-around

[10] Anne Manne, ‘The Universal Caregiver Society’, https://www.thethingswedidnext.org/dispatches-from-the-future/#?dispatches=universal-caregiver-society

[11] See Alistair Thomson. ‘Australian Generations? Memory, Oral History and Generational Identity in Postwar Australia’, Australian Historical Studies, 47:1, 2016, pp.44-45.

[12] Rebecca Solnit ‘Letter to the March 15, 2019, Climate Strikers’, in Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, London: Granta 2019): 174

[13] See Alistair Thomson, ‘Australian Generations? Transformative Events, Memory and Generational Identity’. in Conflicted Pasts and National Identities: Narratives of War and Conflict, ed Michael Boss (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014), 55-68.

[14] Australian Institute for Family Studies Families in Australia Survey: Life During Covid-19. Report No. 1 Early findings, July 2020.

[15] Rebecca Solnit, Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, (London: Granta, 2019),1.

[16] Joanna Macy ‘The Hidden Promise of our Dark Age’, 22 August 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzmjF1jE2K0

[17] Janet McCalman, ‘It’s Possible’, in Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman, What Happens Next: Restructuring Australia after COVID-19, (Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing, 2020).

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