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Best wishes. Kind regards. Cheers.
In the world before COVID-19, any one of these would have been an
appropriate way to conclude an email. But since the coronavirus
pandemic? Sign-offs have adopted an equally polite albeit ominous
tone. Forget sincerely. You are firmly in stay healthy and keep
safe territory now.
So whats the big deal? With so many changes happening in the world
at break-neck speed, who cares about something as innocuous as an email
Its a fair question or at least it would be, if this were only a
matter of online etiquette.
But, according to the experts, this is about
something much bigger. This is about history unfolding in real time.
Centuries from now, academics might analyze these signoffs for a
window into life during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. They
might examine journal entries or social media postings or who knows?
that YouTube video of a guy playing tic-tac-toe with his turtle
during a moment of quarantine-induced boredom. What humans put into the
world during this unprecedented period is archival material. It will
shape the coronavirus narrative for generations.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Prof. Jaipreet Virdi
This pandemic is a unique opportunity for all of us to become historians, said Jaipreet Virdi, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Everything around us is going to become a primary source.
Along with her colleagues, Virdi has pivoted mid-semester and adapted
her curriculum to reflect the current reality: Students are living
through history, and teachable moments abound. In her course on the
history of health activism, a recurring theme has been how major health
crises have affected the lives of everyday people. Since the outbreak,
students have become their own subjects. In place of a planned essay
assignment, Virdi is having the class contribute to multiple Google
Docs. In one, undergraduates are documenting life under quarantine
from what they are seeing in their neighborhoods to what they are eating
to, yes, how they are signing their emails. Eventually, these documents
might be submitted to Morris Librarys Special Collections and Museums as part of a local archive.
One of the discussions inspired by this virtual journaling has
centered on all those lockdown-inspired memes floating around the web
specifically, the ones poking fun at the typical quarantine wardrobe
(sweatpants) or the typical work-from-home diet (anything in sight). The
memes are meant to elicit a chuckle, sure, but this project encourages
students to draw a deeper analysis.
These things are funny at face value, but they also convey a feeling
of displacement, said Jaanvi Mehta, a student in Virdis course. As a
class, weve discussed how the majority of people in society derive a
sense of value not just from routine, but from a productive routine, and
thats been taken from us. On the other hand, it feels insensitive to
complain about a loss of routine when there are people fighting for
their lives on ventilators. Contributing to this project has helped us
grapple with some of these more complicated emotions as they arise. Its
given us a voice.
Reflecting on the present also allows for a deeper understanding of
the past. No longer are previous pandemics abstract episodes in a dusty
textbook they are the now.
Prof. Dael Norwood
I feel like Im living through similar
difficulties as the people Ive studied, and that develops greater
empathy, said Dael Norwood, assistant professor of history. On
Instagram, hes been updating his own quarantine archive, and he is
encouraging his students to do the same. As a historian, empathy is
where the work gets done. Its the muscle for understanding perspectives
of people who came before.
One of the ways this empathy manifests is in the development of new research questions. For instance, all that stockpiling of toilet paper
happening now? This is not merely fodder for another silly meme it
sparks inquiry about the practice of hoarding during the Spanish flu of
1918-1919 or the cholera epidemic of 1832.
To leverage the present in this way, Norwood polled students in his
U.S. history course to see if participants would like upcoming units to
focus on epidemics and disease. Unanimously, they voted yes. When it
comes time to discuss, say, the rise of the cotton South, the class will
read about opportunistic traders in New Orleans who used claims of
yellow fever resistance to sell enslaved laborers at higher prices and
they will examine how the current health emergency reflects race
One of the things very clear from a lot of these crises is that
existing structures of race, gender, and class hierarchy dont go away
during something like this, Norwood said. In fact, they get worse, or
those lines become harder. The way governments responded in the past
should give us insight into what some of the problems are going to be.
During a moment like this, bracing for problems is a commonly cited
reason for studying history the practice helps clarify just how bad
things are going to get. But there is another, more optimistic,
incentive. Examining the past serves as a reminder of how society has
Prof. Lawrence Duggan
Consider Lawrence Duggan, a professor
specializing in the later Middle Ages and a survivor of measles, German
measles, adult chicken pox and a near-fatal staph infection. His course
on the historical importance of plagues, offered at UD since 2017, has
become all the more salient since the COVID-19 outbreak.
students will conduct a family disease-and-death history going back at
least two generations a staple of the course for the last four years
and they will write essays comparing today with the Spanish influenza
of 1918-1919. That outbreak, which infected approximately 500 million
people, is counted among the most lethal events in history, but it is
also responsible for accelerating improvements in sanitation, community
mitigation measures and scientific research. Victims of that pandemic
had no antibiotics to treat secondary infections like pneumonia.
There are so many ways in which we are enormously blessed and
privileged, Duggan said. Knowing something about the past helps you to
appreciate that. It keeps you from taking the present for granted.
So the next time you feel tempted to close an email with a plea to
keep safe or healthy, remember that an equally appropriate missive
during this unprecedented period might be to stay resilient. If history
teaches anything, its that when confronted by hardship people
survive, rebuild and grow.
The human spirit can be quite extraordinary in dealing with
adversity of this sort, Duggan said. Especially when theres a
Be well. Stay stoic. Have faith.
Article by Diane Stopyra; photos by Ariel Ramirez, Amber Alexander Payne and iStock
Published April 17, 2020