Collecting Our COVID-19 History

By Heather Kissinger, Collections Intern

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many people have looked to historical records and museum collections to try to make sense of it all. We can look to objects from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic for example to see how people dealt with life in a past pandemic and how the world changed as a result.

(IHM 94-7-242)

What might people in the future want to learn when they look back at the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re living through today? Will they want to see how we coped with public health guidelines and restrictions? How we adapted to changes in our day-to-day lives? What we learned through the experience of living through a pandemic? With this in mind, we launched the Pandemic Memory Book [link] project in March to record the reflections of Issaquah residents in the moment. Let’s take a look at some common themes.

Feelings

We are living in times of uncertainty. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last or how different the world will be once we reach the other side. Unsurprisingly, this has given people many mixed emotions. People have expressed intensified negative emotions, with words such as “worry”, “isolation”, “terrifying”, “fear”, “despair”, “sad”, and “depression” showing up in the Pandemic Memory Book entries we’ve received so far. At the same time, people have also outlined ways they’re trying to adapt and stay positive in the face of these challenging times, using words such as “cope”, “adjust”, “overcome”, “resilience”, “powerful”, “creative”, “collaborate”, and “hopeful”.

Change

In many ways our day-to-day lives have changed drastically. We haven’t been able to meet up with friends or participate in our normal hobbies. In their Pandemic Memory Book entries, people have described having to cancel gatherings like clubs and weddings; not being able to eat out but ordering take-out as a way to support local restaurants; the chaos of shopping in the pandemic’s early days, with long lines and shortages of supplies like toilet paper and soap; and how seeing people in masks wherever we go has become the new normal.

In some ways, these changes have created unexpected opportunities. Although we can’t meet up in person, our shift to a virtual world has allowed us to stay connected online, and in some cases this has helped us to be even more connected than we were before. One Pandemic Memory Book writer said:

“Video teleconferencing has actually allowed *more* contact with my extended family in the Bay area. In times past, I saw them once every two or three years; we now meet via Zoom weekly.”

When the pandemic ends and the world goes “back to normal”, virtual meetings may be one change from the pandemic that we keep as a way to stay in touch with long-distance friends and family.

Social Justice

Many people who have responded to our Pandemic Memory Book have seen a direct connection between the challenges created by the pandemic and the protests for social justice that have spread throughout the nation. One writer said:

“I’m uncertain if the [Black Lives Matter] protests would have happened to the extent they did without the two months of quarantine prior. …I believe a collective experience like that contributed to the despair and outrage people saw with the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade.”

A common thread in all the entries has been a call to find our values and to support each other, be it through following mask mandates to keep each other safe or by protesting against systemic violence. Many respondents to the Pandemic Memory Book have hope that the actions we take today will build a better world for future generations.

Community

Family and community connections are one of the most prominent themes running through all of the Pandemic Memory Book entries, tying together each of the themes above. We feel a sense of loss as we’ve been less able to meet face to face, but at the same time we have learned new methods of social interaction. We have watched the world shut down but have also found creative ways to support local businesses. We have seen the pandemic worsen existing inequities, but we have hope that we can come together to build stronger communities and a more just society. Despite the challenges we face today, history shows us we can create a brighter future.

Looking back on our experiences today, maybe future readers will be surprised by the ways we responded to the pandemic. Maybe they will be inspired by our resilience, or surprised that we didn’t do more. Maybe they will look back and see how far society has come since, or maybe they will see the ways society has stayed the same. What do you want to be remembered? Share your experience with us and with future generations by submitting your own entry to our Pandemic Memory Book.