Survival is our first priority. But once we've survived, how we remember these times is crucial. All of us have at out fingertips powerful documentary tools unfathomable to those of previous generations. We must use these tools to record our experiences, to remember our own stories from these 'interesting times'.
"May you live in interesting times."
— traditional curse, Joseph Chamberlain
I've just completed my first week quarantined with my family in my house. I am still in amazement how quickly the Bay Area went from business-as-normal to complete lockdown. Three weeks ago our school had just drawn up a "COVID-19 Response Plan." It delineated different tiers of action based on how many cases of the disease had been identified near or in our school community. Looking back now, those risk tiers seem naive. We would never have kept school open if we had accurate information about the disease.
Still amid the crisis, it has already become clear as cases continue to skyrocket that our country completely failed to react appropriately to this pandemic. Bad information and inadequate testing got us off on the wrong foot, and although many of us are now limiting exposure to the disease and reducing the probability of infection when exposed (through hygiene and social distancing), we should still expect our lives to be permanently altered by these events.
I do not know how bad things will get. But I am prepared for them to be much worse. The economic recession hasn't really been "felt" yet – it is too new – but it is coming. People will lose their assets, their livelihoods, their homes. Businesses we love will close. Many restaurants will not be able to re-open. Any operation already on shaky footing will have a difficult time surviving.
And that's just money. In the US there were
73 124 deaths in the 24 hours prior to me writing this post, which is 27% 36% more deaths than the 24 hours before that. This means people we know will die, if they haven't already. The CDC states 82% of COVID patients have only mild symptoms. That may sound like good news, but it does mean that nearly one fifth of cases manifest serious issues. Many people experience pneumonia as a result of the disease, particularly those with pre-existing lung issues. How many people survive that depends much on their ability to receive medical treatment.
Socially, what we're seeing is unprecedented in most people's living memory. All events everywhere are cancelled, from the neighborhood book club to the Olympics. I have seen many places confidently declaring that they'll be re-opening on April 7th, as if this whole COVID thing will have blown over in three weeks. When April 7th does arrive, those predictions will seem as naive as my school's prediction three weeks ago that we wouldn't close.
I am privileged enough to live in an affluent area unlikely to suffer serious food shortage (knock on wood), and work for an employer unlikely to need to lay off staff. I am lucky that our school remains active, doing "distance learning", keeping us all busy and sane. I have never had to live with or near war, serious poverty, slavery, or any of the other injustices many people in our world have to deal with daily. For this I am grateful, and I try to remind myself of this when this pandemic makes prospects seem bleak.
But I have lived through a small number of crises which have fundamentally changed the way I saw the world, events which pulled the mask off of civilization and reminded us how fragile are the social constructs we take for granted. Most of them have been personal: near-death experiences, deaths of those close to me.
But a few have been events we experienced as a society. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck when I was seven years old, on my father's birthday. We were baking him a cake in the kitchen when everything started moving, falling over. My brother and I climbed beneath our sturdy kitchen table. The fridge jerked itself over several feet, bookshelves tipped over, spilling their contents, all the blinds in the house banged against the walls. My mother panicked.
Afterwards, she herded my brother and I onto the front lawn, and set us down with a battery-powered radio. We listened to the news while she went back inside to try to call my father. There were no cell phones, no internet. And the land lines were all busy or down. The radio was our link to the world.
When my mother rejoined us in the front yard, I told her the news said the Bay Bridge collapsed. She didn't believe it.
I still remember to today, I didn't panic during the earthquake. We had drilled for those extensively at school, and my brother and I knew to crawl underneath the table. But afterwards, sitting there on the lawn, hearing reports of all the damage throughout the area, that was when I panicked. The panic came from the realization that there was nowhere safe. I wanted to get away, anywhere but here. My mother said there was nowhere to go, nowhere free of disasters.
Almost twelve years later, the world shook again, on September 11th, 2001. My brother woke me up to tell me that "they" were bombing New York City. Then I got a phone call from the Jewish organization I was volunteering at, saying not to come in. I turned on the TV and saw footage of the planes, the towers. Nobody knew what was going on, either on TV or at home. All the rumors were true for a brief moment, until the next rumor came.
Now, if you didn't live through those events (like the middle schoolers I work with, who were born no earlier than 2005), and you use your now-ample free time to go read about them, you will find official narratives and stories assembled after the fact. You might read how key people reacted – how the World Series game was ended by the earthquake, how the President was in a Florida classroom during the attacks – and think of that as the story of those events.
Neither of those details had anything to do with my personal experiences. As a seven-year-old, I didn't know the World Series game was even happening, let alone care that it was interrupted. And as a West Coast nineteen-year-old, by the time I woke up the attacks were already over, and my concern was towards the safety of my country, not the President's reaction to the news.
This COVID pandemic is in the midst of adding itself to the world-shattering experiences of my life. We will shortly be seeing our national infrastructure stressed to its limits, we will experience mass death, our society will be deeply scarred by this virus. In the years to come, there will be many stories told about what happened. Hundreds of thousands of articles, videos, documentaries, novels, and other published things will be created, each telling the story of those who created it.
Eventually a shared narrative will develop, a meta-story that we use to explain to middle schoolers 20 years from now what it was like to live through a pandemic. Certain people who seem important now will prove not to be, others whose names we do not yet know will emerge as key players.
What is important now, then, is to record our own story. We need to make sure that our personal experiences are not lost, subsumed into the larger narrative that will develop. We need to write down now, as it happens, what we're thinking, what we're feeling, what's happening to us. We will want to remember what we did, and when and why we did it for the rest of our lives. When the meta-story emerges, we need to not forget how it is similar to, or different than, our own personal story.
I am creating for the students at my school a Photojournal activity. The goal will be for them to document their own story during this unique time. I encourage everyone, middle schooler or not, to do the same.
Record what happens to you, what you do. You will look back at this time and treasure those recordings.