In vulnerable times it is essential to maximise the wealth of experiences that can emerge from a social science analysis of epidemic responses. The CoronaDiaries project offers a lens into the ways the current global, plural crises caused by the pandemic are being managed, and how people document how society is being made and remade.
It is a reactive sociological study which is gathering rich, thick qualitative data from participants own accounts (in the shape of written or visual documentation) of the pandemic across the UK and wider afield. A curated collection and managed Open Access online digital archive will be created from these accounts, which will be available to other researchers, policy makers and the general public. As the crisis progresses, it also appears to be a way for participants to share pains and experiences with others.
In many ways the study was created as my own coping strategy to the crisis, to find something to keep me busy and focused. But it was also a way I could be of use, by utilising my sociological skills to make sense of this breaching experiment, but also provide a processing tool for others. I was unsure what the response was going to be, but the interest has overwhelmed me. So far at the time of writing (27th April 2020) the study has recruited 134 participants (from 12 different countries) with 288 people having expressed an interest in taking part. Participants range in age from 18 to 89 and come from different social class, gender and ethnicity groups. They also represent both rural and urban communities.
Looking at the accounts submitted of the first weeks of ‘lockdown‘ from the UK, what becomes clear is that for some individuals there is a surrealness to everyday life that has occurred when society appears to be broken up at rapid pace. Yet for others who continue to work on the front line of this crisis, what accompanies this change is a sense of dread and fear and highlights the plural nature of the crisis in classed and gendered ways.
Beginning of lockdown: A surreal, dream like time
For those able to successfully socially isolate or social distance themselves, (by working from home or living in a rural area with outdoor space), as Abigail and Olivia note in their entries at the beginning of the lockdown, “it all seems like an odd dream” or that “none of this feels real“.
A sense of displacement and uncertainty appear in many participants accounts and reports of an eerie feelings and emptiness to the world. In Jack’s diary for March, he reports “all day feelings of anxiety (or of something indefinable, something weird)“. Others, like Leah state how time itself has changed and that it is:
“so strange having weekends and no plans to fill them…..it is unbelievable. There is such an eerie feel to everything, even walking the dogs on my one walk a day, where I live it is usually pretty quiet, but there is not a soul to be seen“.
By using the words ‘eerie’ and ‘weird’ to think about the current situation, eerie comes to stand for something that isn’t there, such as streets that are empty of people, nobody in parks or cars on the road, the weird as the presence of something that perhaps should be there, but is missing. As Nora described whilst watching the news this strangeness is also felt within one’s self, and an “uncomfortable wobbly pit of my stomach feeling” does nothing to temper the strangeness of the situation.
Interestingly, this sense of surrealness as the lockdown emerged did not happen to everyone at the same time as Sam, a young man in his 20s living in central London, explains:
“London seems… mostly the same? I guess I was just expecting an immediate debasement to 28 Days Later – exacerbated I expect by the significantly more anxious world of social media“.
Fear and dread
Yet for others engaged in essential work during the current crisis, it is a very, very real situation, with life and death consequences. Much of these roles are low paid care or cleaning work and the bulk of them are conducted by women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Emma, a critical care health worker in a hospital, describes quite clearly her fears of patient safety:
“All patients are to be treated as if they are COVID positive, and ward staff are not to clear the airway or start compressions, it’s just straight to DFIB. I half joke I would like them to clear my airway if I choke on a crisp. No one laughs. This is very scary. Not sure how it will feel if we watch people die without everything being tried. Outcomes for CPR are poor even in hospital and this can spread the disease further.”
Abigail also passionately writes of her cousin, who works at a crematorium, and the new reality of funerals:
“the crematorium has been ripped of its benches…imagine the additional pain of that, being in a funeral and losing a loved one…and not being able to have a hug or a hand to hold.”
Victoria, who has been furloughed from her office-based job in a former mining community, highlights with some criticism the key message from the UK government. Her entry shows how this crisis is in part a result of ten years of austerity and how the burden must now be carried by those who are paid the least:
“We are told stay home/save lives/save the NHS… but really we know how the services have been run down, no doctors, nurses, beds, cleaners, porters, maintenance, all these low paid jobs are becoming essential, we need more, not enough test kits, folk are dying because of this.”
Whilst this crisis is undoubtedly impacting on us all across the globe, what is clear from these early CoronaDiary accounts is that there are multiple crises across everyday life. A plural response from governments and policy makers is needed.
It is important to do this rapidly as these participants’ own accounts, which have been created in real-time, could directly influence futures strategies and implementations to target COVID-19. They provide the context for health emergencies to better control future outbreaks or waves and to prepare for them.
Dr Michael R.M Ward is Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Swansea University. His work centres on social inequality and the lives of young men within and beyond educational institutions. Twitter @mrmwardphd.
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