Documenting a Pandemic

Fountain pen point on lined paper with lines in cursive handwriting

The value of recording your experiences and feelings in the midst of COVID-19

Like most Americans, I am going between the TV and the phone, ears and eyes ready for the latest updates on COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease). I am keeping my distance from folks in stores and people I’ve known all my life. I have stopped going to the gym (no choice – it’s closed) and taken up compulsive hand washing. Though I am not prone to panic, I will admit that the current situation has me very concerned.

Yesterday, I listened to emergency room physician and COVID-19 patient Dr. Yale Tung Chen interpret his ultrasounds for a TV reporter, calmly explaining that the opaque appearance of his lungs on the film was an indication of pneumonia. I have been watching the number of COVID-19 cases rise and worrying about the health of my parents and older adult friends. All week I’ve been hearing about school and company shutdowns in my home state. I wonder what will happen to the people who work in these establishments, especially employees on the lower end of the pay scale, those who cannot work from home, and those with no paid leave time. Even if a government relief package is implemented, I worry that it will not be enough.

At a time like this, it is easy for feelings of helplessness and depression to set in. Keeping a diary is one way to maintain sanity and a sense of control. I remember how important it was to record my emotions after 9/11. Writing about the shock and the sadness I felt on that day did not change anything, but it helped me process the surreal horror of the moment. Although the COVID-19 situation is a very different one, I think that recording my interactions, observations, and feelings will help me process some of what is going on now.

As a former collector of oral histories, I have long been fascinated by the power of a single story. In this excerpt from “The new normal: a SARS diary,” Dr. Michelle Greiver relates her day-to-day experiences living under “work quarantine” in Toronto during the SARS pandemic in 2003:

“May 25, day 2: The hardest thing is not being able to touch anyone. I can’t kiss my kids good night, no hugging. At least I can still pet my unfriendly cat.”

“May 29, day 6: Yesterday was especially rough. We’ve had reports of more physicians being admitted with SARS symptoms. I called our rabbi and asked him to mention doctors and nurses who are ill in the Sabbath prayer for the sick.”

“May 30, day 7: I feel like a sack of potatoes. No exercise, no walking around the block with my husband. I’m more irritable than usual. It’s probably a good thing I’m sleeping downstairs. A few more days.”

Much further back in time, Leo, a student in Westtown, Pennsylvania wrote to his mother in Pleasantville, New York about the impact that the 1918 influenza pandemic was having on him, his school, and his family:

“Sep. 23. There are 45 cases of the Spanish influenza…45 cases on the boys side alone and about 15 or 20 on the girls side.” 

“Sep. 30. Well, I had a slight attack of this influenza but was not very sick.” 

“Nov. 7. Well I guess the war is over altho there has been no official report received here….I was very sorry to here that father has such a bad case of influenza…”

The school principal sent these updates to the parents:

“Oct. 5. The epidemic of “Spanish Influenza” at Westtown appears now to have run its course. We have had in all about a hundred and fifty cases…a few of them serious.”

“Oct. 24. We are glad to announce that permission has been given by the State Board of Health for the re-opening of school.” 

“Dec. 12. “We have been discussing the problem of how best to make up the five weeks lost at the time of the epidemic of influenza.”

In Slate magazine’s Coronavirus Diaries series, a now-recovered Italian patient named  Morena Colombi describes the stigma she experienced recently while sick:

“The thing that hurt me most about this whole ordeal was the people from my city, who treated me as if I had the plague…They accused me of going to the doctor and risking infecting everyone, but who could have imagined such a thing three weeks ago? They made up a lot of lies, even that men in hazmat suits came to my house to sanitize it. It’s crazy. I needed their support—instead I was humiliated.”

Pandemics make people tired. They test people’s patience. They can turn neighbors against each other. They are breeding grounds for ignorance, xenophobia, and hatred. Last night, I heard about a fight between two women in a store. One said that black people could not get COVID-19 (which is absolutely untrue). The other responded by invoking the Bible (which is just downright bizarre). The confrontation got so heated that bystanders had to step in to break it up.

The NPR report “When Xenophobia Spreads Like a Virus” exposed some of the vile anti-Asian racism that is rearing up around the world:

“When South San Franciscan Diane Tran sneezed into her elbow in a hallway in a hospital, where she was getting a flu shot, she said a middle-aged white woman yelled a racist slur at her…Devin Cabanilla, from Seattle, told us that a Costco food sample vendor told his Korean wife and mixed-race son to “get away” from the samples, questioning whether they had come from China.”

None of us knows exactly how our lives will change in the weeks or months ahead, but it is a fairly safe bet that infection rates and attitudes are going to get worse before they get better. Coronavirus is working its way through the population undetected, and social distancing practices are pulling people further apart than they already were. As opportunities for interaction decline, self-reflection and introspection become that much more important. Reflecting on thoughts and behaviors keeps us aware of the best and the worst inside of us. Hopefully, we will elevate the best. Hopefully, we will push back against the worst, or at the very least not normalize it.

Even if you are not sick – and I do hope you are well and that you will stay that way – you are a witness to the dramas of this pandemic. You have a story to relate about how COVID-19 has affected your life and the lives of your colleagues and loved ones. Years from now, your story might help a medical historian piece together the reality of this time beyond the TV footage, news clippings, and numbers of infected and deceased persons.

I am not doing oral histories at the moment, but there are many questions I would ask you if I still were. Are people treating you differently? How? What scares you the most? Do you think everyone is overreacting or not being careful enough? What steps are you taking to protect yourself and your family? How are you managing childcare, if you have children? Are your finances OK? Where are you finding hand sanitizer?

Those are just some things I am curious about. What really matters is that you record the events and experiences that are most important to you, either for public consumption or just for yourself. They are your memories, your emotions, and your history, and they matter.

References

Biomedical Library Staff & Carolyn Cubé. (2011). Collection of personal narratives, manuscripts and ephemera about the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic [finding aid]. Los Angeles, CA:  UCLA Library: Special Collections. Retrieved March 13, 2020 from  https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt2t1nf4s5/entire_text/

Colombi, M. (Translator: Greta Privitera). (2020, March 2). Coronavirus diaries: I had the Coronavirus. This was the worst part. Slate. Retrieved March 13, 2020 from https://slate.com/technology/2020/03/i-had-the-coronavirus-worst-part-stigma.html

Escobar, N. (2020, March 4). When xenophobia spreads like a virus. NPR. Retrieved March 13, 2020 from https://www.npr.org/2020/03/02/811363404/when-xenophobia-spreads-like-a-virus

Greiver, M. (2003). The new normal: A SARS diary. Canadian Medical Association. Journal, 169(12), 1283-1283.

Suggested viewing

How to Survive a Plague (Directed by David France)

An extraordinary documentary about the AIDS epidemic.

 

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