Kathleen Kole de Peralta, Curator of A Journal of the Plague Year: “There are many stories that capture joy and happiness during the pandemic”

It was a historic opportunity. In early March 2020, when the Covid-19 lockdowns began in the United States, academics from the Public History program at Arizona State University (ASU) created a quick response file. In other words, “a collective collaboration archive that documents a specific historical event,” says historian Kathleen Kole de Peralta. Thus was born A Journal of the Year Plague: An Archive of Covid-19, a site that collects testimonies and documents to provide a comprehensive view of life during the pandemic.

Inspired by the Ddiary of the year of the plague From Daniel Defoe, ASU academics have compiled more than 10,000 reports. The archive is the first of its kind in history: a collection created with collaborations from around the world that documents the progression of the disease and its impact on our lives. In a sense, it can be read as “a long timeline of events that is both exciting and daunting. On the one hand, we can trace the history of the pandemic longitudinally and work to incorporate diverse perspectives. On the other hand, we would love for the pandemic to end, ”says Kathleen Kole of Peralta.

Based on the testimonies received, how would you describe the year that we lived in a pandemic, from an emotional point of view?

There are stories from all over the world, so emotions vary depending on when and where you look. There are stories that express the frustration of pandemic skeptics who want to return to normal life with or without a vaccine. There are emotions of heartbreaking loss from people who went into lockdown and perhaps never saw a loved one or friend again before contracting Covid-19, due to social distancing restrictions. There are health workers who are emotionally fatigued from sacrificing their time and health in conditions similar to those of a marathon. There are musicians and artists who have poured their pain, loss and optimism into music and other artistic expressions. And there is a lot of humor, several people have sent memes or posts on social networks that take the present moment lightly.

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At the beginning of the crisis, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding the pandemic. In your opinion, what effect did this uncertainty have?

I think unfortunately part of the uncertainty was due to how long the pandemic would last. Strict closures were enacted in areas like Peru, so children couldn’t go outside until mid-May and a certificate was required to use public transportation. However, in Peru and other countries, a higher percentage of the population cannot work from home, making it very difficult for people to choose between providing for their families or the certainty of staying safe. In the United States, many people thought that a four-week quarantine would come and go and that things would return to normal. Historically, we know that pandemics can last for years, but uncertainty and lack of communication allowed many people to think only in the short term, leading us to our current state of pandemic fatigue. Almost everyone is tired of the pandemic, we want it to end and, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.

Games and dances were part of the routine of some families in pandemic. Photo: covid-19archive.org, The National Geographic.

In many places, governments met the threat of Covid with a war narrative. What impact did this narrative have?

There are areas like Israel and South Korea, where there was certainly a narrative similar to what political scientists call a “rally around the flag” effect. In other words, both popular and unpopular leaders / officials experienced sudden increases in their political support. Some were able to improve their reputation by framing Covid-19 as an external threat and in people’s terms against an evil “other.” This means that politicians who were unpopular before the pandemic managed to win re-elections that they would have otherwise lost.

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During the pandemic there were dark moments, of death and mourning. Often lonely deaths. What expressions did the pain find?

The archive has just released a “Deathways” collection to address this very issue. In some cases, people lost loved ones at home, not because of a Covid-19 infection, but because they did not receive their normal standard care. We have seen stories of people protesting the burial of Covid-19 infected bodies in a neighborhood cemetery, virtual memorial services, last goodbyes, and religious rites performed at Zoom. Another strong component is the desire to humanize the vast number of lost people. For example, the archbishop of Lima printed the faces of the Covid victims, placed the sheets on the benches and celebrated a mass. And the Twitter account @FacesofCOVID, which is backed up in the archive, shares news reports, obituaries and personal presentations on those we have lost to the pandemic.

Demonstration against racism in Las Vegas, after the murder of George Floyd. Photo: covid-19archive.org

2020 was also a year of expression of anger and indignation: the Black Lives Matter movement is perhaps its best example. What meaning did anger take on in the context in which we live?

This is another fascinating path to the archive. The murder of George Floyd and the recent Black Lives Matter protests showed us how the pandemic intersected with racial and class inequality. Also, while this movement has a long history, more people, perhaps because they were staying home, paid attention and took action, not just in the United States, but around the world. In terms of anger, there is anger everywhere depending on who you ask. People are angry that police officers can use aggressive force and even kill civilians with impunity. Skeptics of the pandemic are angry that they have to wear face masks and they punish the masses like “sheep.” The nurses are angry that their wards are at or over capacity, and yet people are still traveling and dining out as usual. Parents are furious that “essential businesses” remain open, including bars, shops, restaurants, and liquor stores in some areas, yet schools are closed or virtual learning.

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The year ended with new waves, restrictions in some countries and the hope that the vaccine holds. At this point, what role does hope play?

The news of the vaccine brings hope. Knowing that there is a tentative schedule for distributing some vaccines can help us plan ahead. However, how and when they are distributed highlights further disparities in healthcare around the world. In many cases, higher-income countries such as the US, China, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom have purchased more vaccines and have the resources and political capital to manage and distribute them. But the race to vaccinate has left some populations vulnerable, and that includes low-income countries, pregnant and lactating women and children. There are proposals for solutions to this problem, such as the COVAX initiative of the World Health Organization, but time will tell how long this process takes and what its consequences really are.

In Chicago, two friends play softball with measures of social distance. Photo: covid-19archive.org.

To some extent, joy was also present in our lives. Have you found expressions of joy in the testimonies collected?

There are many stories that capture joy and happiness during the pandemic. Sometimes it is as simple as learning how to prepare a completely new cooking recipe or starting a new hobby. There is a sweet story about a father who founded a “sleep band” with his children to play music and have fun. It seems like a lot of people have new pets or video games to pass the time. Other stories have captured the ways in which people stay in touch with their loved ones and maintain constant communication.

Historian Kathleen Kole de Peralta of Arizona State University.

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