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Global Historians reflect on a Global Pandemic

Published 1 June 2020 - Anne Gerritsen

Early in May, already several weeks after the start of what seemed a near-global ‘lock-down’ policy, it occurred to me that we are living through an extraordinary moment. (One might ask why it took me so long…). In an email sent to members of Warwick’s Global History and Culture Centre, I referred to it as ‘the first truly global experience of our lifetime’, though I admit that I was challenged on this claim almost immediately! It seemed to me to be the first time that I could write to a friend in Italy, or Japan or Venezuela, and all of them were more or less in the same situation: living with Covid-19 somewhere in their environment. They were all in one way or another limited in their movements, and they were all worried: about the impact this was having on their own and their loved ones’ health and wellbeing, on the economy and the divisions and inequalities in our societies, and on the futures we once thought we might have and now feel less sure we’ll ever have.

When I decided to write to members of the Warwick Global History and Culture Centre community, I asked them how they were experiencing this moment. I included current members, but also past members; our past and current external advisors; visitors who had stayed for short or extended visits; scholars who had been with us for an IAS-funded fellowship; post-docs, students, and so on. I think the email went out to about 130 individuals—I hoped that all of them felt in some way a connection with the Global History and Culture Centre, in the same way that we feel a connection to them, wherever they now are.

This is what I wrote:

‘As members (and affiliates or ‘alumni’ if I may call you that) of the Warwick Global History and Culture Centre, we may not be able to do much in terms of offering immediate relief of the crisis. But it does afford us an opportunity to reflect on this global event and try to understand it, and to engage with it in one way or another. I would like to make a very small start with that by writing a post for our Global blog about the ways in which our Centre members, affiliates and alumni are experiencing the Global pandemic.

To help me do that, I’d love to hear from you. I have given you three questions below. If you can only answer question 1, then I’d still be very happy to hear from you. I’d like to place on the map where everyone is, just as a visual representation of how scattered our community is, and how diverse our experiences are. If you have time to write a sentence or two for the other two questions, or even just one of them, that would be lovely. If you’d like to write a great deal more, then you’d be extremely welcome to do so, and we could perhaps even discuss placing a whole piece from you on our blog. But that’s perhaps better done as a separate conversation.

It would be really lovely to hear from you, and if you can only reply with one word (‘Tokyo’ or ‘Caracas’), I’d be very happy. Everything else would be a bonus. I will NOT reveal any identities in the piece I write (unless you give me specific permission for this), but I hope you will allow me to use some of what you write to me in the piece I plan to write. If you would prefer that I do NOT use any of your replies in my piece, please indicate this.’

These were my three questions:

1. Where are you spending these weeks (and months) of the global pandemic?

2. What has been specific to your local situation? (this might be something about you, or your family, or the circumstances in your location or your national response)

3. In what ways has this felt like a ‘global’ experience? What is ‘global’ about it to your mind?

In what will be a small series of blog posts, I would like to share with you some of the responses I have received. To date, I have heard back from 45 people. If you would still like to reply, please don’t hesitate! As promised, I will not reveal any identities, but simply refer to those who replied as ‘respondents’.

To start us off, let's take a closer look at the (not so) global distribution of our 45 respondents.

Where are we?

The first question I asked of our community was simply: where are you? The answers ranged a great deal. Some wrote ‘at home’ or ‘in the countryside’. Others were more specific, giving me the names of neighbourhoods (‘Kentish Town’ and ‘Golders Green’ from two London respondents or ‘the neighborhood of Recoleta’ from a respondent in Santiago, Chile). Some simply gave me a country (‘in the UK’), and one kindly supplied the Google map co-ordinates. Several reflected on where they would have been, had this not happened. (One wrote: ‘Cambridge, UK (we were supposed to be in Stellenbosch for the term, but alas...)’; another said: ‘I have spent them [the lockdown weeks] in Oxford where I live (instead of where I was supposed to be over the same period: Sicily, North-Eastern Italy, Cardiff, Warwick, London and then Australia for the whole of May…’). All of it shows how differently we describe where we are.

In a misguided moment, I thought I could map all this information. Of course, ‘at home’ or ‘in the countryside’ is not easy to put on a map, but I have tried to represent ‘where we are’ on two separate maps: one for the UK-based responses, and one representing our (not so) global distribution.

First the UK map—well, our 21 UK-based respondents were not really in the UK; they were all in England. Unsurprisingly, most of us are in Warwickshire, which includes Kenilworth, Leamington and Rugby. Coventry and Birmingham make up the West Midlands number. Beyond that, we are in the big cities (and their universities): London, Birmingham, Cambridge and Oxford, Hull and Brighton. So, not a very wide geographical spread at all.

Location of GHCC members spending the Covid-19 pandemic in England. Data based on 21 UK responses (one of which did not specify the location in the UK).

When we plot our distribution onto a global map, we also see quite an interesting phenomenon. I have chosen this particular projection of the map, highlighting only the areas where some of us are located, and keeping the rest (where there are no respondents) dark, because it shows how limited our global ‘spread’ really is.

Most of us are in the UK (21 respondents), 7 are in North America, two in Latin America, 2 in Japan, and 12 of us in Europe outside the UK. And within Europe, again, our distribution is rather narrow: one or two of us in places like the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, France and Italy, and four in Germany. We feel, perhaps, that we are spread all over the world, and we are certainly quite far away from some of us, but in fact, of course, we are actually only spread over a very small part of the world.

Having started with the quantitative data, the next blog post in this series will delve into some of the qualitative responses received, specifically offering a reflection on what the "local" means in times of a global pandemic.