Published: 5 June 2020 - Anne Gerritsen
I am finding it difficult to remember exactly what I thought about the threat of this new virus in the early months of 2020. I recall a conversation with a friend in early February about a lecture I was due to give in Shanghai later that month, claiming confidently that I didn’t think what was happening in Wuhan would have much of an impact on Shanghai. (The talk was cancelled the next day.) I also recall leading a chant of ‘Wuhan Jiayou! 武汉加油’ on the UCU picketline where we emphasized Warwick’s multi-lingual community, having seen the Youtube clip of high-rise building residents in lock-down in Wuhan encouraging each other with that same chant. But Wuhan seemed so remote and their experience so different from ours. (By the last day of the strikes, we were advised not to come to campus if we were travelling by public transport. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder and chanted anyway). In February, I really didn’t think I needed to stay home.
So much has changed since then. By the middle of March, we all knew why we were supposed to stay at home. By April, the novelty had worn off. In late May, we found ourselves not at all sure how to get out of our lockdown predicament. Right now, even with lockdown measures being gradually eased in many countries, Covid-19 seems more than anything else a story ‘to be continued’ for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps the time has come for some reflections on what ‘staying at home’ has meant for members of the extended community of the Global History and Culture Centre in the History Department of the University of Warwick. We pride ourselves on our boundary-crossing research, our international partnerships and, when we are feeling hubristic, our global reach. So, what did we do, when we suddenly all had to stay home?
The Meaning of the Local in Times of a Pandemic
When I posed this question, I didn’t ask ‘what did you do at home as a global historian’. I asked: ‘What has been specific to your local situation?’ Entirely unsurprisingly, people talked about what was close to them: family, friends on Zoom, pets (‘I wish we bought that puppy now’), gardens. And there was much to celebrate about all that: ‘It’s weirdly nice that, although I’m separated from my family in the US, we’re going through this together.’ One wrote wryly: ‘Perhaps the chief effect of the pandemic on me personally is that it has accelerated the onset of old age. Since my age puts me in a 'high risk' group, my adult children have put me on a short leash. They buy our food and monitor our movements, such as they are. One can see where this will lead.’
Unsurprisingly, colleagues in lock-down with young children had a much harder time than those of us without young children to care for. One wrote that ‘Tantrums from all members of the family, me included, are on the rise.’ Many of us struggled with space. It makes a huge difference if you are spending the lockdown in ‘a one-bedroom apartment with no oven’, if you are ‘writing at the dining table, making the best of [the] early morning as the family is still asleep’, or lucky enough to be able to spend the lockdown in two locations: ‘in the city center and adjoining the forest. Ergo perfect bliss and solitude. Little traffic on the roads. What else does one wish?’
We worried about our families, sometimes nearby, but often far away, in countries we may not be able to visit anytime soon. One wrote from Spain, saying that ‘the ill, the dead, and the nurses fighting the virus without resources have names and faces, so it was easy for me to feel close to the drama’. And it has been a very lonely time for some of us. ‘I am living all by myself. As a result of physical distancing, I haven't seen anyone for several weeks now.’
Despite the many difficulties, awareness of the huge privileges that have made our lock-down easier also seeps into many of the responses. One described their location as ‘an affluent city [where] most people have the resources to take the lockdown well.’ What a difference gardens, footpaths, walking and cycling have made to us all. ‘Less traffic, more people walking and cycling on the road. People are much friendlier, feel more of a community.’ And entirely in sync with the UK-wide trend, those of us who had the benefit of access to allotments and gardens, turned to gardening, giving us ‘the ability to weed and plant.’
Technology, too, made our lock-down life so much easier; few of us had to worry about spending months in lock-down without access to the Internet. We continue happily toasting our friends via Skype and Zoom, and slightly less happily holding our meetings on Teams, although some even liked that: ‘Moving meetings online has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I can participate from abroad, and still spend most of this year with my wife.’ One wrote: ‘We invested quite some time in learning, we both registered for online courses. We are trying to detach from the reality outside, meanwhile try to be as present as possible to ourselves inside. And now we enjoy the current routine, which we want to keep after all this’.
Unfortunately, not all of us will share the cheery confidence of this claim from a retired academic based outside the UK: ‘Academics are very privileged under these circumstances. They can do their work wherever they are. Universities do not go bankrupt.’ Thanks to the efforts towards the privatization of higher education, in the UK, they do, and if they haven’t yet, they probably will, soon. It is a perspective that will surely not be shared by colleagues who are precariously employed on short-term contracts, on the job market, or dependent on funding streams that are in danger of drying up. Even so, the responses to my questionnaire suggest that in our community of global historians, one key privilege that sets many of us apart from the rest of the world, is that we are not losing our jobs. Or not yet.
National Contexts, Global Comparisons
Several respondents raised the issue of the ‘national’ in their reflections on the specifics of their local situation. One praised the sense of ‘coming together’ as a country (though not describing the UK, I hasten to add). ‘Did the country respond well?’ It seemed not easy to answer that question, whether it concerned the UK or the Netherlands, Sweden or Argentina. Quite a few expressed this sentiment, in one form or another: ‘If only they would do some testing… If I believe the figures of my city, then under 25 people in a 100.000 have had Corona within the city limits.’
Several respondents described a sense of 'coming together', as in this comment about Argentina: ‘newspapers throughout the country and from across the political spectrum ran identical front covers on the eve of lockdown, reading: al virus lo frenamos entre todos (we will stop the virus together).'
It was the national context that created the biggest differences between the local situations of the members of the GHCC community. It allowed one observer to write (was it smugly?): ‘in Greece the government's handling of the virus crisis seems much better than the UKs.’ Another saw this as a matter of professional interest: ‘I have been pre-occupied with this global experience in two ways – trying to figure out why some countries have done so well and some so poorly’.
In the US, one wrote that ‘only essential businesses are open. (It seems that essential businesses include gun stores, but not craft stores, so the definition seems a bit elastic).’ And the healthcare provisions differed dramatically.
In Caracas, Venezuela, one respondent noted:
‘the absence of widespread infections and casualties, in spite of the local context: malnutrition, an extremely handicapped public health system, no feasible social distancing in the poorer parts of our cities, and a failed state. The examples of Manaus, Guayaquil and Iquitos show that in Latin America we are all vulnerable once it takes off.’
In Japan, one respondent described the following:
Japan is taking a different approach from rest of East Asia. We test very limited numbers, and pursued for a long time to track the "cluster" of the infected persons. This approach led to the attempt to define what behavioural characteristics infected persons had. Therefore, very uniquely, not only the medical persons who fight for us in the frontline or those who have travelled back abroad but also specific groups, such as those enjoying "nightlife", and young females working in bars were depicted as groups with higher risks. It was strange to hear the Tokyo governor repeatedly saying "Don' t go to the night town " to avoid corona virus. These discriminations created a loop that less wanted to be tested or less want to be open about being infected. Limiting testing has major administrative advantages, as the test is not 100% accurate, however, the subsequent behaviour driven from the choice felt very local.
One wrote very interestingly about the effect of the time delay in the global spread of the virus (or ‘the discrepancies of the regime of historicity that this situation created’, as the responded referred to it):
Being an Italian in Berlin in February meant that I was exposed to the stories and the preoccupation with the virus before my local friends and colleagues were. I would hear the stories from the Italian news and my siblings, both doctors who dealt with COVID patients pretty soon, while everybody in Berlin was still minimising the risk for Germany. When I left Berlin for New York I experienced this same feeling even worse. We now know that the virus' growth was a couple of weeks behind in the state of New York. Anxious to be myself a carrier, I tried to convince friends and colleagues in New York of the necessity of social distancing while everyone was acting normally, even those who would criticize Trump's presidency for not dealing with this threat seriously. This hiatus between my feeling states and my geographical context is probably the lesson I brought home. Sometimes I had the impression to act like a Cassandra, coming from the immediate future to warn about what was coming. Besides my not particularly interesting personal situation, this experience was a good reminder of something we often say to students and tend to forget: getting reached by the news is not enough to attribute a profound meaning to it.
Once the magnitude of Italy's crisis became clear in Germany, it led to a large-scale outpouring of solidarity even in the right-wing press: ‘in Germany, even the press usually not so kind with the Southern European countries found it convenient to change tune and offer to its readers idyllic images of solidarity between people of the EU (see image here attached from Der Spiegel, with a bilingual message to Italy)'.
For many of us, the UK response has been troublesome, and we might echo the sentiment of this respondent:
‘The shambolic failure of the national government to get a handle on the crisis, learn from countries that had dealt with it more effectively, and to protect lives. The priority seems to have been to protect the NHS over protecting lives which is why we now have the highest death toll in Europe. Never have I felt so utterly powerless in the face of incompetence to be able to respond in some way that might make a difference. The fact that we are all in lockdown exacerbates this feeling of helplessness and yet, we must act, we must hold the government accountable for all those deaths it has allowed to pile up.’
I want to end with this description, from a respondent based in the UK:
‘Together with many Italian friends, I found the delayed response of the UK and the initial lack of worry of my British friends shocking in comparison to what was going on in the North of Italy. I also have close friends in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and we are all surprised at how different the (emotional/political/economical) responses to the pandemic are among European countries. There's also largely different responses within different Italian regions. Friends have been arguing about the way to handle the pandemic and what sources to trust almost to a point of no return. Never has the world seemed to me so small and yet so disaggregated.’
That final sentence perhaps sums up the sentiment of this entire post. In many ways, as a community of global historians, many of us shared many things: the benefits of technology to keep in touch with our scattered families (not infrequently the result of our peripatetic academic lives), the privilege of (some measure of) job security, access to outdoor spaces. But the ways in which national politics intersected with our daily experiences also disaggregated us. And it made us think in very different ways about what the global means. More on that in a future piece.