The plague of Ashdod by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).(De Agostini via Getty Images)
The plague of Ashdod by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).(De Agostini via Getty Images)

Essay: On the need for a people’s history of the pandemic

It is imperative to have an oral historical narrative of Covid-19, the first global pandemic being documented on social media, writes Sankar Ray
By Sankar Ray | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUN 12, 2020 06:52 PM IST

Every datum is essential in an untold narrative and every piece of information is a guide to the unknown, which is like an algebraic infinity. There is no room for disagreement with Syria-born Swiss physician Tammam Aloudat, who believes we need a People’s History of the Corona virus. For this, he has created a Facebook group under the same name with over 1,000 members. Aloudat’s advantage is his activism as an insider of Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross/Red Crescent. He is used to working among people living in emerging nations confronting tough challenges. In an interview to Dan Drollette Jr, deputy editor, Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, he said: “People’s History of the Coronavirus may not be completely typical of everyone’s experience of the pandemic, worldwide. By its very nature, this group is composed of people who are tied in to the digital world. And while there’s no doubt that this is a very diverse group, there is also no doubt that it is heavily skewed toward richer countries — people who have computers or smart phones and a reliable internet connection, and who can afford it all, for example. And most of the people on this group can afford shelter, and can afford to live in isolation for a time as well. So it’s definitely skewed in that direction.”

The need for an oral historical narrative is pressing in as much as Covid-19 is the first global pandemic being extensively documented on social media, where both precious information and misinformation are being collated. Social media researcher Raymond Serrato spotted at least 208 public groups on Covid-19 with a combined following of 6.5 million. Or even more.

The group’s posts range from the political to the deeply personal. Kelly Grote (53) of Massachusetts asks for “ideas on how to mobilize an effective protest while on lockdown” and for artworks, songs, and cartoons as well as offers for online chats to stave off the loneliness that comes with isolation. Others have shared “their fears, anxieties, sorrows, and moments of joy.”

Books by Yuval Noah Harari. (Shutterstock)
Books by Yuval Noah Harari. (Shutterstock)

In an interview to the UNESCO Courier on 25 May, the International Day for Biological Diversity, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, spoke about turning the crisis into an opportunity. “For the duration of the crisis, some social distancing is inevitable. The virus spreads by exploiting our best human instincts. We are social animals. We like contact, especially in hard times. And when relatives, friends or neighbours are sick, our compassion arises and we want to come and help them. The virus is using this against us. This is how it spreads. So we need to act from the head rather than the heart, and despite the difficulties, reduce our level of contact. Whereas the virus is a mindless piece of genetic information, we humans have a mind, we can analyse the situation rationally, and we can vary the way we behave.”

Given this fractured reality – to be under lockdown or not, the people’s history needs to be written wholly on the ‘teeming millions’ that seem to be thrown into an experiment in eugenics. Fortunately, we have a model, strongly suggested by Aloudat too: the works of Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015. Her books include The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (1985, trans. 2017), Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1990, trans. 1992), and Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II (1985, trans. 2019).

The first one is a sequential array of interviews of hundreds of among one million-plus Soviet women who went to the war front in World War II. There were nurses, doctors, medical assistant, pilots, tank drivers, machine gunners, snipers. Now these women are surprised at themselves. Alexievich exposed “unfreedom” for women under male authority and exposed the totalitarian face of 20th Century socialism, which was in contrast to the Marxian ideal. “We were silent as fish. We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front. We just kept in touch among ourselves, wrote letters. It was later that they began to honour us, thirty years later… to invite us to meetings… But back then we hid, we didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes,” said a former anti-aircraft artillery commander. Alexievich met them one by one for seven years (1978-1985). Finally, the book saw the light of day during the Perestroika years under Mikhail Gorbachev. Written in Russian, two million copies were sold within a week

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

The same pattern follows in Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1990, trans. 1992) with hundreds of interviews with those who lost their sons in Afghanistan. History, the gifted listener with a phenomenal sense of rhythm and repetition ‘humanizes itself, becomes like ordinary life... I’ve happened upon extraordinary storytellers. There are pages in their lives that can rival the best pages of the classics. The person sees herself so clearly from above — from heaven, and from below — from the ground. Before her is the whole path — up and down — from angel to beast. Remembering is not a passionate or dispassionate retelling of a reality that is no more, but a new birth of the past, when time goes in reverse. Above all it is creativity,” writes Alexievich.

Historians are split on oral history as a method of writing history. Marxist Eric Hobsbawm was among those who considered it ahistoriographical. So what? Historians like Alistair Thomson have explored the potential of oral history.

This is why endeavours like Tammam Aloudat’s attempt to capture a People’s History of the Corona virus on Facebook are interesting. It is a bulwark against forgetting, against obliterating the memories and consequently, the lessons learnt during this fraught time.

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