Memory is pliable. How we remember the COVID-19 pandemic is continually being reshaped by the evolution of our own experience and by the influence of collective interpretations. By the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests, divisive partisan politics, and anger over extended lockdowns were all influencing how we remember the pandemic.
The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), where I have worked for over two decades, asked me to design an oral history response to document the pandemic in our area. THNOC is devoted to recording and interpreting the history and culture of New Orleans and has long used oral history as a way to add texture and emotional truth to the historical record.
We formed an oral history response following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulting in the collection, over the course of five years, of more than 500 hours of recorded narrative. This effort filled a deep need within our community to reflect and make sense of the experience of the storm and its aftermath.
The evidential value of such work is to some extent dependent on responding quickly to events before our memory is influenced by collective views or changes in our own values and circumstance. That is not to say that our reshaped memories and how and why they have taken new form is without value to historians.
In the case of the pandemic a bigger concern than this reshaping of memory may simply be a lack of desire to remember. The lessons of the 1918 flu pandemic were lost to us largely because we collectively chose to forget. There are likely many reasons for this: a desire to move beyond the political rancor of the time, guilt over not being with loved ones when they passed, or infecting others. Unlike the landfall of a hurricane or a terrorist attack like 9/11, there will likely be no singular anniversary date on which the pandemic will be commemorated. This alone may serve to impact generational remembrance.
Doing oral history now is far from ideal. Lack of resources and social distancing make the interview process challenging and often awkward; but if we don’t listen and record now, there is no guarantee there will be a keenness to do this work in the future. As a community we may just choose to forget.
Recording this time in our city’s history has felt particularly personal. In late March, my wife and I fell ill with Covid. Both in our late 50s and in good health the odds were in our favor, but we were still scared. New Orleans held its Mardi Gras in late February triggering a virulent outbreak. For a time the city had one of the highest infection and mortality rates in the world. The National Guard had set up a testing center at the University of New Orleans not far from where we live. It was a weird emotional experience waiting in the long line of cars to be tested. What looked like a military encampment had been set up in the parking lot and young guardsmen busied about in bubble suits. For us, it felt like our little world was ending in some sort of B-Movie apocalypse. Thankfully, we never went to the hospital, our primary care doctors treated us remotely, but we had a few dark weeks and it took several months before we felt better.
When I was sick, watching the news made me too anxious. When I finally rejoined the world in early June everything seemed changed.
I started work on our oral history plan by reviewing the local news for the first few months of the pandemic, and reached out to local response personnel, local academics, journalists, and city officials to get a good idea of how the crisis had unfolded to that point and how we might frame our documentary response.
To test the water before the project got into full swing, I interviewed a Catholic priest who had performed Last Rites to dying COVID-19 patients in a local hospital. In some cases, the gentle anointing of oil on the forehead and the comforting words of the prayer was the last human contact they had. In his interview he stressed the importance for him to be a physical presence in people’s lives during this time despite the risk.
As we did in our work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we have tried to “imbed” ourselves in response agencies in order to gather narratives. In the case of the case of our Covid project it will be primarily hospitals. Showing up at a work place day after day builds a familiarity and comfort level that leads to greater openness and access. This role as an insider has some pitfalls however. There is a tendency to become party to the internal hierarchy of that organization. It is important to remain somewhat aloof and to work to make sure that you are capturing the perspectives of those not generally given a voice within this hierarchy. In the case of hospitals it is the janitorial staff that cleaned the rooms of Covid patients and the food service workers who brought them their meals.
By July, the initial spike in New Orleans subsided and it proved to be a good time to approach city officials and first responders. Many were exhausted and still frayed from the fight they had been in the past four months. They found comfort, I think, in the reflective nature of oral history, and an emotional release was evident in many of the narratives. Emotion is a critical part of the truth of experience and something fragile and fleeting. Recording this emotional baseline is a critical takeaway of doing crisis oral history and no other documentary technique does it better.
Paramedics were dealing with high infection rates among their ranks combined with an overwhelming workload during the early months of the pandemic. They indicated that sometimes just a little oxygen was needed to save lives. New Orleans EMS Director Dr. Emily Nicholls explains.
Work within the local response agencies will go on for the next two years. We are also are trying to chart the cultural impact of the pandemic and lockdown. From artistic responses, to changes in the deep-rooted funeral traditions in New Orleans, to the impact on the city’s world-renowned restaurants—such a key component of the city’s tourist economy. The implications of this event will be shaping our cultural and political life for a generation.
Featured image courtesy of the author. Prior to the pandemic, artist Josh Wingerter sold his works at a local art market. When the market closed, he began painting the plywood panels on boarded up businesses. In time other artists joined in. Josh created some of the more icon images or the pandemic period in the city.