Remember to forget: Pandemic research during a pandemic

Madeleine Mant //

When did it hit you that COVID-19 was serious? Do you remember how you felt on March 20, 2020? Has that feeling changed?

Since the outset of the pandemic in Canada, I have been leading a team of researchers examining responses to and perceptions of the outbreak. The University of Toronto, where I currently work as a Research Associate, cancelled in-person undergraduate classes on March 16, 2020. Our project commenced on March 20, capturing the first survey data in Canada from undergraduate students about their perceptions of the outbreak. The wide-ranging survey queried student demographics, media use, self-reported anxiety regarding contracting COVID-19, perceived severity of the disease, perceived personal susceptibility, and the adoption of new health behaviours. This survey was based upon a previously validated survey conducted with Ontario university students concerning the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 (Bergeron and Sanchez). The spectre of SARS haunts the anchoring of infectious disease outbreaks in Canada, particularly in the Toronto region. Clusters of cases and deaths in Toronto, Ontario resulted in quarantine and a travel advisory from the World Health Organization (Paquin). With the original authors’ permission, we adjusted the questions to reflect the current outbreak in order to compare their results with the reactions of Ontario university students to COVID-19. One key result of our work was that 75.8% of students self-reported high anxiety with relation to COVID-19 as opposed to 43% of the students in reference to SARS.

The review process of this work was revealing of how important time and place are to research. Our first manuscript was reviewed in mid-June 2020. One critical review of the work particularly struck me, as a reviewer queried whether we thought it was “surprising” for students to have expressed such high anxiety regarding COVID-19 as opposed to SARS considering the “far higher # of deaths.” When our survey opened, Ontario had witnessed only one death from COVID-19. When the reviewer considered our manuscript, however, there had been over 2500. While our analysis was firmly planted in March, maintaining its consideration of the first few days, the product was being considered in the harsh light and high humidity of summer. Dinah Washington noted “what a difference a day makes”—try three months.

Scholarship of collective memory references the slippage from public consciousness of large-scale traumatic events such as the 1918 influenza pandemic (Hirst). Despite the death toll, there are relatively few memorials worldwide to the 1918 flu. Little scholarly interest was shown in the flu following the petering out of cases; historian Alfred W. Crosby acknowledged this academic and public silence in the title of his 1974 book America’s Forgotten Pandemic. Increased interest in the 1918 flu accompanied the centenary and exploded earlier this spring. Media outlets ran myriad articles soaked with flu: “The coronavirus may be deadlier than the 1918 flu”; “COVID-19 is not the Spanish Flu”; “Here’s how the Spanish Flu is similar and different from the coronavirus.”

The spate of articles suddenly interested in possible parallels of historic influenza, accompanied by our first review, emphasized to me how critical it is to collect and archive the COVID-19 experience. Are there a series of Samuel Pepys-like diarists out there keeping track of each day’s events? Future researchers will be interested in amplifying varied voices and querying how individuals in disparate circumstances framed, understood, and survived the pandemic. In April, July, and October my team has undertaken interviews with students, delving into the broadscale governmental COVID-19 policies and the minutiae of their days. Some have volunteered to speak to us each round, allowing for a diachronic record of their changing perceptions of this “new normal.”

It is a privilege to be allowed into their lives as I ask again and again: how serious is this? Are you concerned? What do you miss most? What are you looking forward to? When do you think this will be over? As I listened back to the recordings from April, I could sometimes perceive a wavering in my own voice—the interviewer doing her best to keep a professional distance, but also a person living through this historic event alongside the interviewee. Despite the close temporal distance between the version of me analyzing the words and the version who asked those questions, there is an enormous emotional valley. As I settle into my new routine, adding a mask to the traditional phone/wallet/keys trinity, and acknowledge the likelihood of future lockdown protocols, I wonder: am I already forgetting the initial fear? And to return to the reviewer’s question, am I surprised?

Works Cited:

Bergeron, Sheri L. and Sanchez, Ana L. “Media effects on students during SARS outbreak.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 11, no. 5, 2005, pp. 732-734.

Hirst, William. “Remembering COVID-19.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 2, 2020, pp. 251-252.

Paquin, Leo J.  “Was WHO SARS-related travel advisory for Toronto ethical?” Canadian Journal of Public Health, vol.98, no. 3, 2007, pp. 209-211.

Ethics approval was obtained from the University of Toronto’s Research Ethics Board (#39169).

Cover photo by: Tonik on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s