Illustration for the Memorial by Thilini Perera

“The numbers have always been names.”

It proves a firm reminder of the magnitude of loss and it is the realisation behind the creation of a digital space of memorialisation and remembrance for those Sri Lanka has lost in its battle with COVID-19. The trilingual Sri Lanka COVID19 Memorial is an effort to humanise these statistics and curate a space where friends and family could remember their loved ones and the unique legacy they leave behind through the sharing of memories and tributes. “A collective catharsis for those who have to live with these losses” the site flags in the about tab of the memorial.

The homepage of the site displays 761 flowers; frangipani or araliya, each one of them a symbol of hope and a place where memory can breathe life through all that was lost. There are another 12,000 flowers that need to be documented through the site, and as distressing as it may be to acknowledge, more to be expected.

The site is in its first stage, with the first 761 documented deaths on the site being those in early Government Press Releases. These early press releases provided details of those that died each day – from their age, sex, place of residence and cause of death. However, as the pandemic raged on causing an acceleration in cases and regrettably deaths midway through the year, the information released to the public accounted for little less than a trickle of figures and statistics. While this was a tell-tale sign of the pandemic’s peak in the country, each death now reflected a number rather than details that painted the passing of an individual. Although the passing of public figures and some health workers sometimes received acknowledgement, all others that accounted for the burgeoning death toll in Sri Lanka were just a number released at the close of a day.

It was this push to memorialise and humanise each death as an individual that allowed for the creation of the Sri Lanka COVID-19 memorial by an intergenerational group of volunteers.

The base for the memorial was from a database that was created using extracted information from the daily press releases on COVID-19 by the Department of Government Information (DGI) and the daily death count recorded by the Our World in Data: COVID-19 Data Explorer. The two sources were matched against the other so as to correspond to the deaths on a specific day. This data was thereafter organized by the group of volunteers taking account of each person’s place of residence, age, sex, place of passing and cause of death. Incarcerated persons who fell victim to the pandemic were accounted for in this process as well. With a death now having some discernible information that can be recognised as the passing of an individual person, each person was then represented by an individual flower on the site, thereby offering a space which can act as an online tribute to one of Sri Lanka’s nearly 13,000 victims of the pandemic. 

However, the 761 entries from the Government press releases that are on the site as of now account for less than 6% of the country’s total deaths. There is much work to be done.

A volunteer for the site, speaking on the next step, said, “We want to try and access data that the government has not released yet and also depend on other sources like news reports about deaths of health workers so that we can keep adding to the memorial.”

The memorial is also in some manner a record of the state’s negligence in handling Sri Lanka’s pandemic response while also revealing the lack of transparent accounting of its impact. Although the initial press releases of the DGI provided some insight into those lives lost, the manner in which these were displayed to the public made much of the data difficult to code and organize. “We found that the government press releases were presented in an inaccessible format as jpeg image files which meant in order to add that information to our database, we had to read through these images and manually enter the data. Earlier on in the pandemic, there would be individual ‘case studies’ reported of at least some of those who died of COVID, including the individualised information mentioned above. However, earlier this year, as deaths began to rise, the daily reports took the form of lists or tables that group the deceased together, and any individual identity was erased,” the volunteer explained.

To add to this, the data entered was often riddled with discrepancies. A recurring issue here was the quantitative number of deaths for a certain date being different to the more qualitative data gathered from several press releases. “For example the total number of deaths recorded for 14 March 2021 is just one but as we went through press releases, we found three more deaths that happened on the same date, bringing the total to four instead of one,” the volunteer added.   

The site in its present form is already a space for reflection and memorialisation yet once the work behind the memorial gains momentum and further entries are incorporated to capture the true magnitude of loss on this island, an accurate picture of the cost of negligence, indifference and apathy will be something to be noted as well.

“We hope the memorial motivates journalists and others to look more closely at  the data the government is releasing on COVID-19 related deaths, follow up on some of the discrepancies noted in our publicly available database and push for more transparent, systematic and thoughtful recording of these deaths,” the volunteer said.

To see the site’s purpose realised to memorialise those that passed, support and contributions beyond current sources would be required. Accordingly, the about tab on the site calls for:

  • Submissions from people who want to add their loved ones to the memorial
  • Advocacy for the government to share more details about every individual person who has died from COVID-19 in Sri Lanka
  • Sources of information from journalists, researchers and other interested citizens who are able to identify and/or access them
  • Community-driven data to help ensure that those memorialised are not misgendered or misrepresented, hopefully leading to naming them at a later stage with consent from families or loved ones.

To submit details of a loved one to the memorial, click here. The submission can also be made in Sinhala and Tamil.

To learn more about those behind the curation of the Sri Lanka COVID19 Memorial, click here.