‘Today’s mail, tomorrow’s postal history:’ COVID-19 collections taking form

By Jesse Robitaille

This is the first story in a three-part series highlighting COVID-19 philately.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing since mid-March, countries around the world have been fighting an invisible enemy for about four months.

In that time, while adjusting to the “new normal,” postal administrations have given collectors a plethora of pandemic-related postal history, stamps and postmarks that will serve exhibitors well into the future.

“Today’s mail is going to be tomorrow’s postal history, right? Fifty years from now, all the collectors are going to be looking for covers that had markings or routings that were related to the COVID pandemic,” said Jean Wang, a seven-year member of the North Toronto Stamp Club (NTSC) who serves on the club’s exhibition committee and as its newsletter editor.

“We’re living through a really amazing time where things are really going to change, and once we come out the other side of the pandemic, who knows what society is going to look like? I don’t think it’s going to look the same as before the pandemic, and there’s a lot of interesting postal history, and we’re kind of living in the middle of it right now. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to collect.”

A letter mailed by Toronto philatelist Jean Wang to a friend in Malaysia was returned with a label reading, ‘Return to Sender / Temporary Suspension of Postal Service.’ (Photo by Jean Wang)

Wang explored all that “COVID-19 philately” has to offer at the NTSC’s first virtual meeting, which was held via Zoom on June 11 and attended by more than 40 people. Owing to the amount of related material being issued, Wang updated her presentation every day in the two weeks leading up to talk “because there’s new stuff coming out all the time,” she said.

“By any means, it’s not comprehensive. It would be impossible to talk about everything that’s out there, but I wanted to give you a flavour of what’s out there and give you some information – some interesting tidbits – about the different things that I’ve found.”

Another letter mailed from Germany to Indonesia was returned to its sender with a similar handstamp reading, ‘Return to sender. Postal traffic to the destination country is currently interrupted. Resumption is currently not foreseeable.’ (Photo via Delcampe)

PANDEMIC-RELATED POSTAL HISTORY

In her recent seminar, Wang highlighted the various ways people can collect postal history related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada Post has been very important for us because at this time of physical distancing, it’s really important to try and stay in touch and not be socially distant,” said Wang, who’s also a member of Canada Post’s 12-person Stamp Advisory Committee.

“Letters and the mail is one way that we can keep in touch with everyone. Canada Post, I think, has played a really important role in helping people stay in touch.”

Due to an increase in online shopping plus physical-distancing requirements at its mail-processing plants, Canada Post has suffered from widespread delays as it experiences what it calls “Christmas-level” parcel volumes.

A letter mailed from Germany to China includes the same handstamp, which in German reads, ‘Zurück an den Absender / Postverkehr mit dem Bestimmungsland / ist momentan unterbrochen / Die wiederaufnahme ist zur Zeit / nicht absehbar.’ (Photo via Stampboards)

Since April, Canada Post has also suspended service to more than 150 countries, “but mail is getting through,” Wang added. If you try to mail something through a post office to a country to which Canada Post has suspended delivery, the postal clerk won’t accept it; however, if you drop the mail in a mailbox, it will go through the appropriate channels before being returned to you.

In May, Wang tried mailing a letter to a Malaysian collector who wanted to add the new Canada Post slogan thanking healthcare workers to their collection. But because Canada Post suspended service to the Southeast Asian country, the letter was returned to Wang with a label reading “Return to Sender / Temporary Suspension of Postal Service.”

“Once the route opens up, I’m actually going to send this entire cover to that collector,” she added. “So for him, it’s a really cool piece of postal history related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Mail is also being turned back in other countries, including Germany, where Deutsche Post is returning some mail with a handstamp reading, “Zurück an den Absender / Postverkehr mit dem Bestimmungsland / ist momentan unterbrochen / Die wiederaufnahme ist zur Zeit / nicht absehbar” (roughly translated to “Return to sender. Postal traffic to the destination country is currently interrupted. Resumption is currently not foreseeable.”).

A North Korean handstamp reads, ‘Delayed due to COVID-19 / DELAYED.’ (Photo via Facebook)

“This is a nice hand cancel and a nice piece of history to keep in your collection,” Wang added.

Other handstamps, including one used in North Korea, are related to delayed delivery.

“North Korea sends out new issues to their subscribers, but they were holding all the mail until the flights resumed,” she said.

The handstamp reads, “Delivery delayed due to COVID-19 / DELAYED,” which will be applied to all mail being held by the North Korean postal service.

“That’s a nice cachet to collect as well.”

WHAT IS COVID-19?

In December, the world began experiencing its latest coronavirus outbreak, which would later be identified as a strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The first cases were recorded in Wuhan, China, as pneumonia of an unknown cause. By January, a novel coronavirus was identified as the cause, and by February, it was named SARS-CoV-2 (after the first SARS virus, SARS-CoV-1, which largely affected China, other East Asian countries and Canada in 2002-04). The disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

COVID-19 is “much less virulent” than the first SARS, said Wang – a clinician scientist and staff hematologist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – so the disease is “typically very mild in most people.” But with a mortality rate believed to range between one per cent and five per cent, COVID-19 far surpasses the virulence of seasonal influenza, which is caused by different kind of virus and kills only 0.1 per cent of the people it infects.

COVID-19 became such a significant global pandemic – more than the first SARS in the early 2000s and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012 – because it spreads rapidly.

“It’s sort of like a perfect storm of characteristics for this virus,” said Wang, who added SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious but causes mild disease in most people, leading to asymptomatic spread at an exponential rate – something exacerbated by globalization, urbanization and widespread travel.

“And there’s no pre-existing immunity, so it’s a new virus – we’ve never seen it, nobody’s immune to it – and therefore everybody’s susceptible to it, and that’s why it’s spreading everywhere.”

As of June 16, there were more than 8.1 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with nearly 450,000 deaths and 4.2 million recoveries.

For comparison, the first SARS outbreak saw little more than 8,000 cases and 774 deaths while MERS had only 2,500 cases and about 800 deaths.

Going back to the 1918 flu pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu), there were 500 million cases – a third of the world’s population – and about 50 million deaths.

“They implemented the same kind of public health measures that we’re implementing now,” said Wang, referencing the widespread business closures and strict limits on public gatherings put in place in Canada since March.

The goal is to “flatten the curve” – to delay or mitigate the virus’ exponential spread – through physical distancing.

“The reason to do that is because even though it causes mild disease in the majority of people, the important number here is not the relative number but the absolute number. If millions of people are infected – even if it’s only one per cent that get very sick and need ICU (intensive care unit) and ventilators – those are huge numbers, and we just don’t have that capacity in the healthcare system.”

Another piece of admail from World Vision features a pandemic-themed quote, ‘Love is what unites us in times of crisis, like this.’ (Photo by Jean Wang)

TANGENTIAL CONNECTIONS

Aside from returned and delayed mail, there are also “more tangential things” collectors can get their hands on.

These collectibles include returned letters with handwritten notices highlighting cancelled events on the front of the cover. One manuscript – on a cover mailed to Hollister, N.C.’s Pow Wow Station for the 55th annual gathering of the Haliwa Saponi Indian Tribe – simply reads, “Cancelled due to COVID-19.”

“That’s a memento of the things that are happening with cancellations.”

One of the largest events to be cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic is the 2020 Summer Olympics, which is pushed back to 2021.

“A lot of countries had already planned, printed and issued stamps related to the Tokyo Olympics,” said Wang, who added a friend from Japan sent her a postcard with one of the Japanese stamps issued for Tokyo 2020. “Even though there’s nothing on here that says ‘COVID-19,’ it’s still another thing that you could potentially collect around events that have been cancelled due to the pandemic.”

A postage-paid envelope sent by the Red Cross in the Netherlands features a COVID-19 slogan. (Photo via Delcampe)

Even advertising mail – also known as junk mail – can find a home in a COVID-19 collection. A postage-paid piece from the Netherlands is one example of modern postal stationery that could be used in a thematic exhibit, Wang said.

“It has a message on here – ‘Coronacrisis,’ ‘We’ll get through this together’ – so even your junk mail potentially could have a postal history significance.”

Another Canadian example, this from World Vision, also ties into the pandemic theme with a relevant quote, “Love is what unites us in times of crisis, like this,” from President and CEO Michael Messenger.

“Even though the picture on the stamp itself doesn’t really say anything about COVID, the message that’s written on the envelope refers to the COVID-19 crisis, so this could fit into a collection related to COVID-19.”

Another “admail” example is from the Michael Garron Hospital Foundation.

“The indicia itself actually has a picture related to COVID-19,” she said, of the healthcare worker wearing a face mask and a face shield.

To encourage letter writing, Ireland’s An Post issued postage-paid postcards to all of its country’s households.

Several postal administrations, including Ireland’s An Post, have also issued postage-paid postcards to all of their country’s households to encourage people to write to one other.

“They called this ‘Come Together. Write Now.’ They actually sent two postcards; the postcards come together and you just separate them, and they’re postage paid—they could be sent anywhere in Ireland postage free.”

One widely shared example includes a young boy’s message to his Nana: “I love you. When the virus is over, I’m going to hug you and kiss you to death. Bye bye.”

“I think a lot of people are missing their grandparents and their grandchildren,” Wang added, “so I think these are nice ways to kind of keep people connected.”

The series’ second story (‘No shortage of COVID-19 stamps to fill out collection,’ CSN Vol. 45 #7) explores the various COVID-19 stamps, both official and ‘less official,’ issued since the pandemic began in mid-March.

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