A People’s History of a Pandemic

April 16, 2020
A transmission electron microscope image of the novel coronavirus | Photo: NIAID-RML

Tammam Aloudat is no stranger to outbreaks. As a physician for Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign, he works to make medicine and vaccines accessible for regions of the world afflicted with diseases largely forgotten in rich countries: tuberculosis, hepatitis C, kala azar, and sleeping sickness, among others. Last month Aloudat was reading the latest news on the novel coronavirus from his office in Geneva, Switzerland, when he came across a tweet by a historian suggesting that people start keeping records of their lives.

The thought nestled into his dreams. The next morning, March 14, he woke up and created a Facebook group: People’s History of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Aloudat invited a few global health colleagues, thinking that they might be interested in recording their personal experiences in different countries. Twenty-four hours later, the group had 1,000 members; as of today, it has more than 5,500, spread across ages, geographies, and occupations. “I’ve read every public health history you can imagine as a hobby,” Aloudat said over Skype from his apartment in Geneva, where he now works from home alongside his wife and twin toddlers. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was visible on a bookshelf behind him. “But most of them end up being skewed by government records. I was interested in seeing, what would it mean to create a collective record? It gives a view that is going to be different from the official view.”

covid-19 is the first global pandemic being extensively documented on social media, producing a wealth of information (and misinformation). According to social media researcher Raymond Serrato, Facebook has at least 208 public groups on covid-19, with a combined following of 6.5 million. (The actual number is likely higher; Serrato searched for public groups that included “coronavirus,” “pandemic,” or “covid” in their title and only counted those with more than 1,000 members.) So far, People’s History of the Coronavirus Pandemic, a private group, is the only one asking people to record their lives with the purpose of starting an ongoing historical archive.

The group’s posts range from the political—a recent query from Washington, DC, reads, “ideas on how to mobilize an effective protest while on lockdown?”—to the deeply personal: there are artworks, songs, and cartoons, as well as offers for online chats to stave off the loneliness that comes with isolation. People have shared their fears, anxieties, sorrows, and moments of joy. Wrote Kelly Grote, a fifty-three-year-old writer in Massachusetts, on the morning of March 31:

Waking up in the days of corona: the father-in-law of a college classmate has just died of corona in the Midwest; a friend in NYC mentions that there’s a refrigerator truck down the street from him since there are too many bodies; another friend there lost three people he knew to the disease last week; I fill out a form to donate gloves to a local hospital that is running out of supplies and is struggling with the ever-rising number of cases. The sun is shining, after two days of rain, the golden finches in the yard are getting back their summer plumage, and I struggle for balance.

Other members post reports from countries outside Europe and the US that are likely to be hit next but have received scant attention from international media, as border closures, citywide curfews, and mandatory quarantines halt the movement of journalists between and within countries.

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Scoviah, a thirty-three-year-old midwife in Kampala, Uganda (she asked that her full name be withheld), wrote on April 2: “First [they] banned all public means of transport and we were not so worried because the few who could drive gave lifts to others with their personal cars. People started walking over 10kms to arrive to their work places.…I need to point out that my people here literally live from hand to mouth daily.…[A] few days later, private cars were banned, not even to take any sick person to hospital neither for us medical personnel to go to work at the hospital. Poor mothers will die at home with complicated labor.”

As the virus spreads, there may soon be places in the world that we stop hearing from. Some governments want to retain control of the official narrative; already it is hard to get information about the virus’s impact in Russia and Iran (voices from these countries are also noticeably missing from the People’s History). Two Chinese citizen-journalists who reported from Wuhan—Fang Bin, a former businessman, and Chen Qiushi, a videographer and former lawyer—have disappeared, while journalists elsewhere have been detained for their coverage, such as Yayesew Shimelis in Ethiopia. On April 3, Aloudat posted a message asking members of the group to “invite people who might be somewhat or entirely different from you.”

Aloudat is particularly interested in how a collective record can counter the gaps in representation and biases entrenched in mainstream media that accompanied coverage of previous epidemics, such as Ebola. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a Congolese doctor, responded to the first Ebola outbreak in 1976, taking a sample of a patient’s blood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) and sending it to Belgium for analysis. Yet until recently, Belgian scientists were credited with “discovering Ebola” in the Western media.

Wael, a forty-four-year-old man in Erbil, Iraq, posted on March 22, “Hello all, feedback from my experience here in…the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan Region (KRG)…the region is under a full curfew since the 14th of March, with the same exceptions as almost everywhere. The authorities are even delivering food and essential supplies to families in need…this March, the Kurdish population had to skip the Neyrooz festivities, celebrated every year in spring. Yesterday, despite the confinement and the pouring rain, residents of my neighborhood played the Kurdish anthem and songs, and the expatriate population light[ed] candles in a display of solidarity and gratitude.”

As the pandemic spreads around the world, social media continues to serve as a conduit for citizen-led documentation, similar to how it’s been used to share news from places most journalists can’t enter or crises the media has simply stopped covering. But while the platforms facilitate the mass collection of stories, they are not designed as a historical record. Here, the work of human rights groups like the Syrian Archive can be instructive in how to develop catalogues to sort content and advocate for social media platforms to alter policies that may inadvertently delete information.

READ: In a pandemic, what is essential journalism?

It will be critical for present and future generations to understand the ways covid-19 affected our lives: those we lost to the disease, those who lost their livelihoods and ways of life, those who were separated from their loved ones. Only through recording and remembering this period accurately are we likely to take appropriate measures to prevent new pandemics through strengthening global health institutions and improving the capacity of national health systems. We will want to remember everything.

Aloudat has not seen his father in ten years, since the Syrian war made it impossible for him to return home to Damascus. For him, the coronavirus is not a “great leveler,” as some have referred to it in the press. “When it spreads in weak health systems, it is going to affect people disproportionately, and even when it spreads in [countries with] strong health systems, people who have the means to be treated or isolated properly have a much higher chance of surviving,” he says. “But it is a disease that puts everybody at risk, so no one is unafraid.” People’s History has also seen members sharing free advice and social support to strangers, some of whom reported they had no one else to turn to.

“But how can I tell their story/ if I was not there,” inquires the Chilean-Argentinian writer Ariel Dorfman in his poem “Vocabulary.” As is the case whenever there is some form of social or political collapse, it is communities—not the official media—who will primarily document and bear witness.

Read more stories from CJR’s Covering the Pandemic series

Caitlin L. Chandler is a long-form journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and Guernica. She is a recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation 2020 Fund for Women Journalists.