In December of 2019, scientists identified a respiratory disease that had previously never been found in humans which began a global pandemic unlike any other in modern history. The scientists named the disease COVID-19 and it was highly contagious with no vaccine at the time of this report. As of May 2020, there were over 4 million cases worldwide across over 200 countries (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). Our project documented stories of individuals living through this pandemic, as well as societal and environmental changes that were a result of COVID-19. In addition to recording stories, we tracked the evolution of certain responses as the disease spread progressed. Through our objectives, we were able to track the experience of living through the coronavirus pandemic and preserve this time in history.
The COVID-19 disease progressed and rapidly spread around the globe. From its discovery in late 2019, it took only two months for 100,000 people to contract the disease, and the number of cases doubled from 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 in just thirteen days in April (COVID-19 dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University, 2020). The United States, like many other countries, implemented travel bans as well as a national emergency (Muccari & Chow, 2020). Many policies were implemented specifically to deal with COVID-19, but a lack of enforcement and understanding in the general public meant there was little mitigation of the disease. Due to the nature of the pandemic, it affected people in different ways, and our team had to ensure that these delicate stories were framed in a just light. We wanted to ensure that the interviewee was in control of their own narrative and that we understood their situation in terms of the pandemic. These considerations allowed us to accurately document a subject’s story while remaining conscious of their situation during the pandemic.
To achieve our goal of tracking the experience of living through this unprecedented time in history, our team identified three main objectives. First was to record the personal stories from individuals across a spectrum of cultures, occupations, locations, and ages. Many of these semi-structured interviews were conducted remotely based on a sample of convenience. We also utilized a snowball sampling method to reach out to additional participants. All subjects were given the option to remain anonymous. Our second objective was to track the evolution of personal responses and adaptations as the pandemic unfolded. Due to the quickly evolving nature of the disease, we predicted participants’ opinions and experiences were likely to change throughout the course of the project. We identified several individuals who agreed to conduct supplemental interviews to reflect these changes. Our final objective was to document community and environmental changes as a result of measures enacted in response to the pandemic.
Results and Discussion
In fulfillment of the above goal and objectives, we were able to successfully map fifty-three separate multimedia entries, spanning ten countries total, into an archive made publicly available on WPI’s Global Lab website (see Figure A). Figure A: Screenshot of our final map of stories, with fifty-three entries spanning ten countries. After analyzing these varied experiences collected in the form of personal interviews, stories, photographs, and videos,
we ultimately drew conclusions about the shared experience of living through this pandemic.
Our tracking of this pandemic relied heavily on collecting stories and artifacts that could be mapped to synchronous events in the global response. Therefore, key to this archive was documenting stories through interviews from individuals willing to share their experiences and their perspectives on the months following the start of the pandemic. These stories highlighted attitudes, emotions, traumas, and adaptations to the timeline as the pandemic unfolded, allowing us to identify trends and patterns in our subjects’ personal experiences, so as to make broader claims about the global response to COVID-19. Some of our most striking observations from this process are summarized by frequency of occurrence in the figure below..
We conducted our first interview on April 6, 2020, and continued to complete sets of interviews up until May 3, 2020. Within this time period, the number of COVID-19 cases in the world more than doubled (see Figure C). Thus, a critical part of tracking stories during the pandemic was to further contextualize the changing landscape in which the pandemic was situated using supplemental media collected in fulfillment of our third objective. We received several submissions from eager participants willing to showcase their communal observations. Below is a single image from the New York Times that stood out to us as an apt reflection of this crisis’ visual landscape. The purpose of our project was to track many dimensions of the human experience as they developed in real-time, and we felt the scene pictured above perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of the situation the world now finds itself in.
The shortcomings of the U.S. food supply chain laid bare in this photo are but one of many such inequities that came to light globally in the throes of this pandemic. This did not go unnoticed by many of our respondents, who consistently expressed regret that no one — neither government nor individual — was properly prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the initial shock, though, it appears that over time, our subjects became more and more familiar with their new living conditions, however begrudgingly, with some even going as far as to make more confident future predictions. Tracking the experiences during the pandemic also raised the question of how we would adhere to a sense of civic responsibility. Some people felt strict obligations to obey the social distancing measures put in place to ensure the continued safety of those around them. Others believed that the government had a responsibility to protect its constituents from harm, particularly its most vulnerable populations. Others took up the responsibility to support the essential workers. All in all, respondents were quick to recognize privilege disparities in people’s COVID-19 experiences.
Recommendations and Conclusion
Based on the findings of our research, we suggest that recording and preserving the human experience of living through historical events be continued through the practice of the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) research format offered at WPI. By collecting dozens of accounts from people across the world detailing their life at different points in time throughout the pandemic, we have created an archive that future historians, experts, or interested parties can look back on. In the same way that we now look back on accounts of the Spanish Flu in 1918 to inform decisions made about pandemics today, humans in the future may look back on the accounts collected here to inform their choices.
this work to look beyond science and into the humanity of tragedy helps societies honor, remember, and learn from the challenges faced by the people that constitute them. Digital storytelling using data such as that presented in the interactive map of our final deliverable (Appendix F) allows for a visualization of how the pandemic’s effects were felt on a global scale, to be documented and amplified for future reference, which we hope ultimately translates into clearer, actionable pandemic preparedness policy, at least at the federal level.
Advisers: Uma Kumar & Ingrid Shockey
Students: Raj Dandekar, Alex Klenk, Chioma Onyenokwe, Emilia Perez, Henry Poskanzer