Living Through History

At some point towards the end of 2020, given the myriad of problems imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, several of my friends, family, and colleagues around me were saying that we are living in historic times, and that once the pandemic is over, kids in school would read about this event some years down the line. It is indeed we are living through an unprecedented global crisis and one that will be a great historical moment. In this article, I reflect on how we can document the history we are living through during this pandemic.

This is perhaps a question that can best be understood through past crises in history. Events such as the Spanish Flu, World Wars, Cold War, or HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 90s are a few that had a longstanding global impact. Apart from that, other regional conflicts and crises like the Bengal Famine of 1943 that had taken place left a devastating impact. I believe any crisis in history is overcome not just by the sheer resilience of the people but also by collective effort. So, it is important to document these efforts, voices, struggles, and the overall impact that has been inflicted by this pandemic.

This allied effort is not restricted only to the ones fighting on the frontlines, but also to the rest of us who in our own ways can contribute. For instance, take the healthcare system in developing countries where doctors are distressed due to the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19. However, they do not have to fight alone. We all must support them to the best of our abilities. This support could be in the form of providing resources or just taking precautions we know can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Howard Markel, an American physician and medical historian, had once said, “historians have been fascinated with epidemics since the days of Thucydides, and they have avidly indulged that fascination by producing a rich body of scholarship” (2001: 1025). This is a correct assertion, but one must also be mindful of the historian’s sources that paint the picture of the past. These sources need not be restricted to individual oral testimonies. But also, in the form of photographs, recordings (could be audio or video), or artifacts that can be found in museums and archives.

“Red Cross workers make anti-influenza masks for soldiers in Boston, Massachusetts in 1918”. Source: National Archives News, USA
“Red Cross workers make anti-influenza masks for soldiers in Boston, Massachusetts in 1918”. Source: National Archives News, USA.

As the English historian Edward Hallett Carr (1990: 9-10) argued, “history consists of a corpus of ascertained facts”. These facts are available to the historian in various formats like the above-mentioned photograph, inscriptions, or documents in general. It is in the same way as “fish on the fishmonger’s slab” (ibid). Hence, for the historian to write history, there must be sufficient evidence to shed light on a complex past. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the most acute pandemic in contemporary history would be the influenza pandemic of 1918. It too did not discriminate, and roughly 500 million individuals worldwide were affected (see National Archives News, USA). Until 2020, photographs or artifacts of the influenza pandemic were mere histories present in museums, archives, and libraries. However, the last year has taught us that through the past, we can imagine the future. A future devoid of the past is no future at all. Through photographs and artifacts contributed by people to museums and archives, one can imagine the kind of impact the 1918 pandemic inflected.

Initiatives such as the COVID-19 Documentation Project launched by the Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University, USA are inviting individuals to share their first-person accounts in these disruptive times. According to Tufts, the last time they were closed was during the 1918 pandemic, over a hundred years ago (see DCA Tufts). Through this ongoing initiative, they seek to document the students, faculty, and staff’s experience of living in these extraordinary times. On their website, they mentioned how there is limited information about the pandemic in 1918. However, they would like to make sure that the impact of the present crisis is documented appropriately for future generations to understand the nature of these turbulent times. In the USA, there are other universities as well documenting the fight against COVID-19 like Columbia University, Stony Brook University, Syracuse University, California State University Northridge, amongst others.

In the Indian context, there are projects such as the National Covid Memorial – a space dedicated to the millions of Indians who lost their lives due to the virus. Such initiatives are actively documenting the living history through the eyes of active participants. To understand any crisis in a historical context, it is foundational to consider that its participants were not mere statistics or mute spectators, but real people with lived experiences. Another example would be the attempt by the Delhi government to document their official initiatives to deal with the spread of COVID-19 (see PTI 2020: The Economic Times). In this article, I argue the need to document these extraordinary times using different methods such as first-person oral narratives, official governmental initiatives, local and national pamphlets, and other materials circulated on media platforms and elsewhere that illustrate the unequalled nature of our times to the future generations. To conclude, there are various initiatives run by both government and non-government agencies across the globe that aim to document the spread of COVID-19. Notably, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) project called the “Compendium of Digital Government Initiatives in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic 2020”. We all must contribute towards the documentation of the present crisis to provide a platform to all those affected.

References:

Carr, Edward Hallett. (1990). The Historian and His Facts. In What is History? Published: Penguin Books. England, UK.

Digital Collection and Archives, Tufts University. (2020). Accessed here: https://dca.tufts.edu/about/news/covid19-at-tufts-%E2%80%93-share-your-story

Markel, Howard. (2001). Journals of the Plague Years: Documenting the History of the AIDS Epidemic in the United States. Published: American Journal of Public Health. Accessed here: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.91.7.1025

National Covid Memorial India. (2021). Accessed here: https://www.nationalcovidmemorial.in/

PTI. (2020). Delhi govt asks DMs to document their initiatives to deal with COVID-19 situation. Published: The Economic Times. July 12. Accessed here: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/delhi-govt-asks-dms-to-document-their-initiatives-to-deal-with-covid-19-situation/articleshow/76919851.cms

UNDESA: Compendium of Digital Government Initiatives in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic 2020. Accessed here: https://www.sdg16hub.org/content/un-desa-compendium-digital-government-initiatives-response-covid-19-pandemic-2020.

Sneharshi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Bhasha Sanshodhan Prakashan Kendra in Tejgadh, Gujarat. For his fellowship project, he is conceptualizing new collections, presentations, and displays for the ‘Museum of Adivasi Voice’ and contributing to the issues on education, arts, and culture at Bhasha. Sneharshi recently graduated from the Manipal Centre of Humanities with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Humanities. He completed the summer programme on Political Theory and International Politics from the Department of Government, London School of Economics (LSE). At Manipal and LSE, Sneharshi worked on assignments dealing with issues related to caste, class, identity, marginalisation, material memories, and political philosophy. He also presented a paper on visual anthropology at the World Class Day organised by the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Prior to AIF, he was an Archives and Outreach Intern at The Partition Museum in Amritsar. As an intern, he recorded, transcribed, and documented oral narratives of people who migrated to India during the 1947 partition. Sneharshi also worked as a youth worker for a platform based mobile app – ‘Meaningful’ based at the University of Cambrigde, UK. He was selected as a part of the Global Leaders programme by Exeter University, UK, and Heritage Walk Calcutta where he presented his work on heritage buildings in Kolkata. Sneharshi enjoys graphic designing, photography, filmmaking, and theatre.

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