Musings on Remembrance Day and Covid-19

In Canada, Remembrance Day will be marked this Wednesday, November 11.  Due to Covid-19, ceremonies of remembrance will be different this year–no parades, no gathering at local cenotaphs,  curtailed (if any) events at Legion branches.  And yet, I wonder if the events of past wars are more relevant to us this year than any other as we attempt to adjust to living with the pandemic.  While I recognize that Remembrance Day honours veterans from all the wars, based on my family history,  I’m going to focus on World War 1 (WWI) and World War 2 (WWII).

At no time in this post am I implying that what we are going through with Covid-19 comes close to the horrors experienced during WWI or WWII.  I am only wondering about some similarities.

The Use of Language

As I started to think about the similarities, I couldn’t help but notice the language.  Words are important.  They frame how we look at events.  It’s interesting to note that the language used around the pandemic is ‘battle’ language.  We talk about ‘the war’ against Covid-19.  Nurses, doctors and first responders work on the ‘front line’.  Government and public health officials are creating ‘Covid strategies’.  Just as casualty lists were published during the world wars, we have daily access to Covid-19 statistics by world, country, province, region and city.  The frequent statement of “We’re all in this together.” applies to all of it.

How Long Will This Last?

The thing about history is that we know how the stories end (and when).  The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918, the Second from 1939 to 1945.  These global military conflicts, the largest in human history, lasted years, not months.

For those living through the two world wars, struggle and sacrifice were a daily occurrence.  Travel was curtailed in order to save precious fuel so it could be used by the military.  Citizens lined up for food and used ration cards–not only to help support troops but also due to food shortages.

Since everything was in short supply, people became experts at making do–whether by reusing materials, making things from scratch, mending, sharing or doing without.  Various governments published information pamphlets with instructions on everything from turning cuffs on shirts (in order to make them last longer) to growing Victory Gardens and canning the resulting produce.

Because of the travel restrictions, as well as the reality of loved ones fighting overseas or in different parts of the country, it was impossible (or difficult) to see family and friends.  Sometimes people didn’t see loved ones for months or years.  A baby born near the beginning of the war may not meet one of their parents until they were about to start kindergarten.

Depending on where they lived, individuals dealt with the reality of daily bombings (being forced from their homes on a moment’s notice, spending night after night in underground shelters). Many people living in England urban centres sent their children to live with family members (or strangers) in safer parts of the country.

Our Current Experience

While not to the same extreme, during this pandemic, we are being asked to restrict travel–not to support the war effort, but to make sure that we stay close to home in order to avoid spreading the virus.  Borders have been closed.

During the spring lockdown, there was a resurgence of cooking, baking, DIY projects and making do with what we had on hand.  Remember the shortages of food staples, cleaning products and toilet paper?  We didn’t have ration cards, yet we were limited to how many bottles of hand sanitizer or loaves of bread we could buy (if any were to be had).

We’ve been asked to make sacrifices–restrict our social contacts, stay away from seniors homes, give up organized sports, work from home and home school our kids (often at the same time).  During lockdowns, public playgrounds were closed.

A major thing that we share with our ancestors is that they didn’t know how long the war would last, or what the future looked like.  They coped on a daily basis.  We are being asked to do the same as we await a vaccine and levels of immunity.

The Change in Grief Rituals

A similarity in both the world wars and our current time with COVID-19 is changing in the way we publicly mourn.

It is estimated that 76 million people died during the two world wars.  Another 50 million died as a result of the 1918 pandemic (commonly referred to as the Spanish flu).  With many of the military deaths occurring overseas, fallen soldiers were buried in military cemeteries near where they died.  Due to the circumstances, many of the deceased were buried in mass graves.  After the wars, great attempts were made to identify individuals and give them their own grave and marker.

While some families may have erected a grave marker in the local cemetery, everyone had access to public memorials to mark the deaths of local people killed in battle.  This was a big change from being able to care for the loved one and be an active participant in the funeral process.

During the 1918 pandemic, people were dying so quickly, and in such large numbers, that regular funeral and burial practices were impossible.  Funeral services were banned and funeral personnel of the time (undertakers, coffin makers, grave diggers) were unable to keep up with demand.  Burials had to happen quickly, leaving little or no time for public mourning rituals.

Grief During Covid-19

As I read about the burial practices of the wars and 1918 pandemic, I’m reminded of news footage of mass graves and one-mourner funerals occurring earlier this year in Europe and New York City.

As we’re aware, funeral homes in Canada have been restricted by the number of family and friends allowed to attend a funeral/memorial service.  Physical distancing has prohibited hugging of loved ones when it is needed most.  We haven’t been able to hold the service that we or the deceased wanted to have.

Grief has sometimes taken a back-seat as we struggle to cope with the daily realities of living in a pandemic, leaving mourners to feel guilty that they’re not honouring their ‘person’ as they think they should.

Strangely enough, while lonely, grieving has become even lonelier as we become aware of the weight of everyone’s grief.

Doing Things for the Common Good

One of the common memories that the Great War veterans and civilians share is that there was a sense of purpose and that everyone was working for the same thing–victory.  People did things for the common good–knitting for the troops, saving food scraps, supporting neighbours and strangers.  While this may paint too rosy a picture, when I have spoken to family members and elderly friends who lived through this time, the hard stories are interspersed with stories of great sharing and connection.

Today, the biggest symbol of doing things for the benefit of all is wearing a mask.  We are asked to wear them in order to keep others safe.  We try to wait patiently in line when required and practice kindness for others.  On a good day, we can give others the benefit of the doubt and on hard days, we can try to keep our lips sealed.

There are also many stories of window visits for people who are in isolation, grocery pickups for at-risk neighbours, food drop-offs for healthcare workers, drive-by birthday parties and baby showers…

Life Will Be Different

Life wasn’t the same for those living after WWI and II.  WWI ushered in the beginning of the end of the class system in Britain (Downtown Abbey anyone?).  Both wars led to a global loss of innocence as we learned of the atrocities that humans were capable of doing to other humans and the earth.  In the US, the technology created by WWII led to the creation of chemicals that changed the world forever as well as the exuberance of 1950’s consumerism.

While we don’t yet know how our world will be changed by Covid-19, we have seen some massive changes already.

  • Working from home has become so common that we may never return to offices in the same way.
  • We are on the move.  As our jobs are no longer as tied to a physical location, people are moving in order to be closer to family and away from urban centres.
  • Relationships are shifting as we let some people go and focus more on others.
  • We are becoming more used to spending more time at home and less socializing in person.
  • We are relearning what is important to us and asking big questions about how we want to continue after the pandemic is a memory.
The Big Differences

While I’ve been focusing on the similarities, there are two big differences that I see between these times in history:  a visible enemy and the ability for physical closeness and support.

No matter which side of the war you were on, there was a shared enemy.  Not only was the enemy shared, but the result of the battle was very visible–casualty lists, bombed out buildings, absent loved ones.  Today, we can’t see a microscopic virus.  It’s hard to believe in what we can’t see.  This can make us feel like the threat isn’t as serious as we are told by health and government officials.  It’s hard to keep up the fight and remain vigilant.

We miss human contact.  During the wars, people were able to band together–friends and strangers alike–as they viewed the destruction.  While they may not have been able to hold a burial for a loved one, they were surrounded by those who could hold and comfort them.

When people are sick of this entire thing, dealing with anxiety/depression and wondering when it will be over; it’s the isolation from all of their people that they feel is the hardest.

So in whatever way you mark Remembrance Day, please take a moment to honour those who share similar struggles today.  We are all in this together.

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