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Three years into the pandemic, oral history project finds we can’t agree on what’s happened

Olivia Grant (R) hugs her grandmother, Mary Grace Sileo, through a plastic drop cloth hung up on a homemade clothesline in May 2020.
Al Bello
Olivia Grant (right) hugs her grandmother, Mary Grace Sileo, through a plastic dropcloth hung up on a homemade clothesline during Memorial Day Weekend on May 24, 2020, in Wantagh, New York. It was the first time they had contact of any kind since the coronavirus pandemic lockdown started in late February 2020.

It's been three years and we still don't know how to talk about COVID.

The New York Times Magazine recently detailed the work of the NYC COVID-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive, established at Columbia University in March 2020. The archive collected the pandemic experiences of roughly 200 people, circling back with some multiple times over 18 months.

What emerged was a messy picture of pandemic life mired in death, uncertainty and loneliness.

"We have, by and large, all had to come up with our own interpretation and memory of what the pandemic was like," said Ryan Hagen, co-director of the project and a lecturer in the department of sociology at Columbia University.

"The fact that we can't all agree on that," Hagen told The Colin McEnroe Show, "is going to have consequences for the way that American history unfolds for the next many years."

Society's inability to form a cohesive narrative about COVID-19 is due in part to the way the virus eroded so many ingrained social norms, Hagen said. Sports, social events and even friendships were paused or cast aside — making it difficult to mark time as one day in isolation bled into another.

"People were at home all the time, or, or even when they went out into public, if they were essential workers, you didn't see people in the same way," Hagen said. "You didn't interact with them as closely."

And then there were the many collected stories of those who got sick.

"One of the stories that sticks in my mind the most is actually just a paramedic who caught COVID relatively early on from a patient that they had been transporting to the hospital," Hagen said. "He just described laying on his couch and watching his stomach rise and fall like the waves of an ocean.

"It was all he could do to just lie there and just kind of watch himself breathe, because it was so hard to do it," Hagen said.

Hagen said it was the stories of treating people with COVID and having COVID that stuck with him as the "world kind of came apart for people, especially in the early days of the pandemic."

He said collecting the stories was essential (the same group also worked on a 9/11 oral history and memory project) because even in the early days of COVID it was clear: The world wasn't going to be the same.

"We knew that was really important to capture people's memories of what this pre-pandemic world was like," Hagen said. "And what it was like to navigate the first few weeks, and then months of the pandemic reality, and then what it was like as people tried to struggle to make sense of it and recover afterwards."

The pandemic is still claiming hundreds of lives each day. And three years in, Americans have largely moved on. But looking back, the memories are all still with us. Each unique and different.

Listen to the full interview on The Colin McEnroe Show: "The state of COVID, three years into the pandemic."

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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