What the Archives Didn’t Teach Me About Life in a Pandemic

In researching my book, I spent months studying primary sources: newspaper articles, pamphlets, public health records, personal correspondence, diary entries and other materials. I never expected that I would see first-hand what a global contagious threat would look like in my life time. I had an idea of the progression of quarantine and the pattern of media coverage. At the same time, no book or microfilm prepared me for a number of aspects in this experience.

  • The Waiting Game: Nothing that I’ve read addressed what it is like to feel fine, have your family feel fine, but know that the danger is coming. . .for months and is not a matter of if, but when. I’m sure the people in the army camps of 1918 that got hit with the March/April wave of influenza felt similarly–just no one wrote about it.
  • Balancing Crisis Mode with Everyday Life: In the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, townsperson Elizabeth Drinker made daily notes in her diary that combined mundane activities like taking a walk with notes about the latest death toll and friends who had passed. I never imagined how strange it would be to do the basic things we have to do, like buy dog food, within the context of the COVID-19 cloud. Everything is the same, yet it’s not the same.
  • Some people are fools. Newspapers of the past occasionally mentioned individuals that broke quarantine and were then arrested. Since they didn’t have social media in 1925, for example, there weren’t Instagram photos capturing crowds flaunting their poor choices and lack of consideration for others.
  • Parenting in a pandemic: This is a big one that NO ONE talked about in the past. Children were part of past epidemics, of course, and were mentioned when they became ill and died, but the stories of active parenting during such a time were not documented and a preserved. As parents, it’s a tricky time. Not only are we juggling childcare and work, but we are also trying to balance crisis and despair with making sure our kids are fed, engaged, and have pretty good days. We have the added challenge of explaining and demonstrating this new reality without terrifying them and inciting panic. At the end of the day, our kids deserve to think that the world is good, they are safe, and this will pass.
  • How much I would miss the world during social distancing. I am certain that the groups of students quarantined at the University of Kansas and other schools felt lonely, bored, and isolated. However, we don’t have their personal testimonies about the experience. We are privileged to be safe here as a family. Yet, I will fully admit that I mourn our normal reality.
    Being extra-extroverted, I knew that I would have these feelings. But it’s not just my friends that I miss. I love being part of a community–like a normal one, in which you see the same faces at stores, parks, karate, and on campus. I miss teaching to human students sitting in front of me, even if they fall asleep sometimes. I want maskless faces to slightly breech the six-foot distancing just to chat for fun, comment on the weather, or to just return a “hello.” Someday we’ll get back to a new version of that world.

What does this all mean, aside from my own lamenting? We need to be writing our stories and recording the diverse experiences of others so that future generations can better understand what living at this time was like.

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