Covid was devastating – why are we pretending it didn’t happen?

<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

My best friend has been ill and it’s taken both of us back to March 2020. For her, it’s reawakening the real trauma of getting very poorly and waiting, struggling to breathe, for an ambulance that never came. I was far luckier, but it’s revived memories of trying to keep in touch with her, waking each morning terrified she wouldn’t answer my messages, as our robustly fit and healthy neighbour died in hospital, his partner unable to visit.

Covid was so bad for so many – why aren’t we talking about it more? My friend, who suffers badly from long Covid, struggles to understand the refusal of many people to think or talk about the pandemic; their reluctance to understand what it has taken from her and from so many others. She’s baffled by the apparent desire to pretend it never happened, or that it wasn’t a big deal.

Then there’s the absence of formal memorialising: the Covid memorial wall came into being as a reaction to the lack of any official equivalent. The third anniversary of the first UK case being detected in York near where I live came and went with little more than a tweet from the local paper. I suppose the lack of a definitive end point makes that harder. There’s no armistice; we’re living through a fizzle (at best: there’s always the fear it could get worse again). It’s hard to tell ourselves a clear story about Covid when we don’t know how it ends.

This happened with Spanish flu, too: Laura Spinney’s book on the 1918 pandemic describes the “collective forgetting” and the absence of official memorials. It was, Spinney says, remembered “personally, not collectively … as millions of discrete, private tragedies”.

But surely that’s no longer possible now, when digital life means we’re all enmeshed in one another’s experiences to an unprecedented degree. I certainly can’t forget the private tragedies I saw and read about. But I discovered something else in Spinney’s book: the word nallunguarluku – “pretend it didn’t happen”. It’s what elders in one Alaska community devastated by successive epidemics apparently advised people to do. Have we all just decided to nallunguarluku?

• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist