When the pandemic has passed, how will we celebrate our heroes? Nicholas Agar hopes we think positively and creatively to mark this profound piece of history.

It’s clear that we didn’t think enough about the possibility of a global pandemic before 2019.

In this time of waves of infection and new variants of concern it’s important to note that this too shall pass. We need to think about how we will remember the pandemic.

I propose we should deliberately create myths that prepare our people for the next shock that might involve a novel virus, might involve a climate disaster, or might involve something we haven’t yet dared to imagine. Aotearoa’s creative minds need to get busy mythmaking.

Humans are especially inclined to make myths in times of trial and death. That explains the war myths celebrated in so many cultures. When we celebrate Anzac Day, we remember the brave soldiers who died struggling up a hill toward entrenched enemies on the wrong beach. These stories continue to inspire us over 100 years after the landing at Anzac Cove.

Cultures draw on their war myths to motivate sacrifice to achieve especially difficult challenges. There have been numerous declarations of war on the pandemic – China is currently waging “people’s war” on the virus. But these seem as wrong-headed as declarations of war on atmospheric carbon. Conquest of SARS-Cov-2 is as unachievable as military defeat of the carbon molecule.

Aotearoa needs new myths to supplement our war myths and to take us where Anzac stories can’t. We can choose how to remember the pandemic by the stories we tell, the monuments we build, and the days we commemorate.

We celebrate a military blunder on Anzac Day when we could be celebrating triumphs such as New Zealand soldiers’ heroic capture of the heavily fortified town of Le Quesnoy in 1918. The decision was rightly made that we had a greater need to remember the tragic futility of Gallipoli.

We have a similar choice about how to remember the pandemic. The way we remember the Anzacs points to something important about remembering the sacrifices of the soldiers not their impressive techs. On Anzac Day there’s no discussion of the killing power over 500 meters of the Lee-Enfield SMLE rifle. I hope we take a similar approach to our commemorations of the pandemic. Pfizer’s investors will want us to remember its mRNA vaccine and to slap its logo on any celebration. But we’ll need to remember mRNA vaccines strictly as the tools wielded by our heroes. 

Calling Aotearoa’s creative minds

We will exercise our mythmaking power in the monuments we build in the coming years. Celebrations of anniversaries are the ways we collectively remember. Many of New Zealand’s soldiers must have landed in Greece in 1941 with memories of the Anzacs.

We tend to forget things we don’t celebrate. The pandemic prompted reexamination of the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. It was a surprise to see sepia-coloured photos of mask-wearing nurses. We understand so much more about viruses than they did. But we’ve found ourselves obliged to painfully relearn these ancestors’ discoveries about mask-wearing and social distancing. If we’d celebrated the sacrifices of the Spanish ‘flu as we celebrate Anzac Day, this might have been easier.

In an earlier piece I suggested that we continue to celebrate Lockdown Day on March 25, the date Aotearoa went into Level 4 lockdown in 2020. Lockdown Day should celebrate the heroism that carried us through the pandemic.

We will need stories of frontline healthcare workers who went in to treat people stricken with a killer virus before there was a vaccine, aware that they had inadequate PPE.

We should also celebrate the sacrifices of the rest of us. When New Zealanders went into lockdown, we denied our essentially gregarious natures. When placed under stress, humans most want to come together. In a pandemic this natural response just spreads disease. The many stories of people escaping managed isolation show just how hard it is to be alone during a crisis.

A frequent criticism of Anzac Day is that it celebrates an Aotearoa of times past. New Zealand has changed since 1915. The new national myths we create can elevate New Zealanders whose stories don’t feature on Anzac Day. Many of the leading roles in our pandemic response have been taken by women. I think Māori ideas have been central to our collective response to the virus.

How can we make the pandemic danceable?

Conflict is so balletic. That’s apparent from Michael Jackson’s iconic 1983 Thriller video. But war has so many other rituals that invite our participation. When the lone bugler sounds the Last Post serving officers in military attire stand to attention. But the rest of us stand to attention too.

One opportunity for Aotearoa’s choreographers is to help us to remember the difficult lessons we’ve learned by doing the same for nurses and doctors treating Covid-19 patients and for New Zealanders sheltering at home during lockdown. 

One thought comes from the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. It’s celebration of Britishness did not omit Britain’s National Health Service. We got to see dancing nurses and bouncing patients, all set to music.

The challenge for Aotearoa’s choreographers is to come up with rituals and dances that we can perform on Lockdown Day so we can remember what we’ve learned.

That way we may not have to spend the opening year of a possible Covid-39 pandemic struggling to remember that masks and social distancing work against a contagious virus.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment