Writing Histories of COVID-19

The British public were urged to stay at home at the end of 2020, to create a safer New Year for everyone

As we enter the final stages of ‘Lockdown 3’ in Britain, and we look towards the start of the lifting of the preventative measures that have been put in place by the government from next month, it seems as important a time as any to begin to explore how historians will interpret, respond and write about the coronavirus (hereafter COVID-19) crisis, both in the UK, and across the world. The history of reporting epidemics shows historians today that it will be hard to predict how COVID-19 will be remembered and written about. It is likely that many British historians will compare it to the The Black Death of 1346-1353, or the Great Plague of London which occurred between 1665-1666, especially in London and wider Britain. Similarly, it is likely that historians will pick up on the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which like COVID-19, spread global. 

However, an important distinction to make is that the latter is relatively unknown, except to scholars, because it became a footnote to the First World War. It is only across the COVID-19 period that I personally have seen more talk of the 1918 epidemic in popular culture. This comparison between the 14th and 17th century plagues, versus the more recent 20th century epidemic suggests to us that the way COVID-19 will be remembered is still relatively unknown, not least because we are unable to predict what events will occur in the next ten years or so. So, what do we know about COVID-19 histories so far, and how can future historians write histories of this pandemic?

The British Government published this hard-hitting national ad to urge the nation to stay at home

I believe that a future historian’s task will not be to look at the ‘state’ as a broad consensus, such as the government or other political administrators of a country, but rather at ‘national society’, specifically the way that COVID-19 was reacted to, and dealt with, within local community settings and wider, across entire regions or countries. For example, one of the key aspects of the COVID-19 response across the world has been to ‘stay at home’ in order to control the spread of the virus. However, it is striking to think that millions do not actually have a home they can shelter in, for example migrant workers, or refugees fleeing from war torn areas. This is something that will be key for historians to highlight, especially when the inevitable comparisons of first world and third-world responses arise.

Many academics and non-academics alike have fallen into the trap of comparing the events surrounding COVID-19 with other popular memories of community togetherness and countrywide plight, specifically those of the Second World War. It is likely that many future historians will do the same. Community claps for the NHS and carers conjured ideas reminiscent of patriotism and togetherness, just like in the Blitz of 1940-41, while nationwide lockdowns promoted the idea of ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ (except without being able to leave the house for anything other than the weekly food shop or exercise). However, the key problem with comparing the event of COVID-19 to that of the Second World War is that the war was a completely man-made event, meaning it does not, and cannot, have the same responses as a global pandemic, both today and in the future.

This is not to say, however, that we cannot look to the past when exploring the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor make comparisons. For example, in Britain on 12 May 2020, Mass Observation (MO) called on the public to write a one-day diary entry to document their daily life during the crisis. * At this time, the UK had entered their seventh week of national lockdown, and it was becoming rather all too clear that this was not to end anytime soon. In 1937, MO called for people from all parts of the UK to record everything they did for one day, May 12, each year and the resulting diaries provide a wonderful view into the everyday lives of people across Britain.[1] These diaries have become an important resource for those researching countless aspects of the 20th century. MO allows historians to gain a sense of what it was like living through historical events, and the disruption or rapid change experienced, and the accounts collected by MO over the last two years will allow historian to explore this within the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, the public, not just historians, have been urged by countless organisations to record accounts across this period; of their activities during this strange time, as well as their feelings, both towards the pandemic itself, and the governments responses. Different generations have recorded their experiences of the pandemic in different ways, with some using the traditional route of documentation, such as diaries, and others using more contemporary outlets, such as Tiktok. This variety of accounts will be useful for generally exploring reactions to the pandemic, but also creates a further lay, allowing for a comparison of different generations responses to COVID-19. It will be essential for historians to explore the wide range of accounts that may be available to them, rather than just looking at the more traditional routes, in order to get a broader sense of how the pandemic effected different age groups and parts of society.

Example of the rainbows that can be found across Britain, to celebrate the hard work of the NHS and key workers

The COVID-19 movement has been further captured in a number of physical ways, at least in countries such as Britain. Masks and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) have become a vital part of everyday life, no longer solelyfor nurses and doctors in hospital. Another aspect that has become visible in everyday life has been the rainbow symbol, which can be seen painted, draw and printed on houses, vans, buses and buildings across the country. Along with this, celebrating the NHS and key workers was also conducted on the doorstep, every Thursday at 7 O’Clock in the evening, when neighbours would come together (socially distanced of course) to acknowledge the hard work of the NHS and the key workers across the country. All these things have become symbolic of the COVID-19 crisis in England, and it will be important for historians to analyse their meanings, reception and usefulness across this last year.

Furthermore, historians should ask themselves what impact COVID-19 has had on equality, culture and intimacy across the world? It is clear that intimacy has been negatively impacted, at least in Britain, with lockdowns stopping all forms of social contact within anyone but your immediate households. Tinder dates and club hook-ups have become a thing of the past, at least until things are back to ‘normal’ (whatever that may look like). However, the impact the pandemic has had on equality and culture is something which can be considered relatively unknown and may not be known for some time yet. It will only be as the world begins to recover from over a year of crisis, that the implications of the pandemic will begin to show. Similarly, while we can know from past epidemic events that social injustice is a very common issue, and how they often highlight where power and security lie, we again cannot predict how this will look, and be interpreted, in the ‘post-COVID’ world. Historians will want to answer these ‘big’ questions, but it may be that the these are only answerable once the smaller seeming, minute details recorded in everyday life, through social media and diary entries, are explored and analysed.    

In conclusion, historians can, and should, already be thinking about the way they write about COVID-19, and the events that have surrounded this period, specifically acknowledging how their work will affect future historians studying the period later on. The seminal event that is COVID-19 will periodise how historians of the present and future think about history, specifically viewing the beginning of the twenty-first century in a ‘pre-COVID’ and ‘post-COVID’ light. Furthermore, in a few years, decades, maybe even a century, it is likely that historians will look back, not at a ‘pre-COVID’ time, but rather a ‘pre-2016’ time, one before events such as the election of Trump, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the beginning of Brexit, and many other events in between. Similarly, it is likely that we will learn about the political and cultural fall out from COVID-19 in this ‘post-COVID’ era, one which will manifest itself across the world in the coming years. 

It is important for people to continue recording their experiences as we venture into a post-COVID world, to allow historians to explore not just the event itself, but the consequences that were left behind. As the decades go by, and we pass our experiences of the pandemic from generation to generation, it is likely that the humane, everyday voice of life during COVID-19 will be lost, however it is our duty to make sure this does not happen. To make sure that ‘big data’ does not become the only thing that is remembered of the COVID-19 pandemic, that when writing histories of this time it is not just the number of those infected or the number of deaths that is remembered, but the faces and voices of those affected by the events that we are living in today. 

Note: This blog was inspired by the IHR Historical Research Lecture 2020, ‘Writing histories of 2020: responses and perspectives’. The IHR offers a wide range of events and seminars, on various historical eras and topics. You can find them here: https://www.history.ac.uk or on Twitter at @ihr_history.

[1] Mass Observation (MO), “Wednesday 12th May 2021: Would you like to keep a one-day diary for Mass Observation?” Last accessed 15 March, 2021, http://www.massobs.org.uk/write-for-us/12th-may

*They have done the same this year, so please do get involved and keep a one-day diary on 12th May 2021 and submit it to Mass Observation when you are done!

[Image 1] BBC News, ‘Covid-19: Stay home for the new year, public told,’ published 31 December 2020, last accessed 19 March 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55494800

[Image 2] Gov.uk Press Release, ‘New hard-hitting national TV ad urges the nation to stay at home,’ published 22 January 2020, last accessed 19 March 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-hard-hitting-national-tv-ad-urges-the-nation-to-stay-at-home

[Image 3] Bath Echo, ‘COVID-19 response from key workers and community set to be recognised,’ published 16 June 2020, last accessed 19 March 2021, https://www.bathecho.co.uk/news/community/covid-19-response-key-workers-community-recognised-90477/

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