Travellers wearing safety goggles, protective face masks and rain ponchos are seen heading to the international departure gates at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. on March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Travellers wearing safety goggles, protective face masks and rain ponchos are seen heading to the international departure gates at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. on March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

‘We are making personal history’: How the COVID-19 crisis will be remembered

Psychologists say certain globe-shaking events can conjure ‘flashbulb memories’ in many people’s minds

From packing up their desks alongside laid-off co-workers to getting word that a surgery would be delayed, many Canadians can pinpoint the moment last year when they realized everything was about to change.

For a newcomer to Canada, it was the empty shelves at the grocery store that reminded her of the shortages in her home country.

For a Calgary retiree, it was the despair of knowing that even a mother’s love couldn’t mend the dismantling of a routine her daughter with autism depends on.

For a Canadian visiting New York City, it was watching one of the world’s largest metropolises scramble under a state of emergency.

In our collective consciousness, the crisis didn’t begin when the World Health Organization’s officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

One year later, memory experts say the onset of the pandemic is marked in each of our mindsby personal revelations that ruptured our sense of time into “before” and “after,” shaping the way we remember life as it was and as it is now.

“We are making personal history,” said Peter Graf, a psychology professor and cognitive scientist at University of British Columbia.

“The storytelling part is also important, especially as we’re living through it.”

Psychologists say certain globe-shaking events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, can conjure “flashbulb memories” in many people’s minds, allowing them to recount the circumstances of how they received the news in photograph-like detail.

Some studies suggest these recollections are often as emotionally salient as they are inaccurate.

The COVID-19 crisis doesn’t fit into this framework, however, Graf said, because it didn’t come as a sudden catastrophe.

A steady trickle of headlines trackedthe spread of the virus across the globe in the early weeks of 2020, he said.

Then, at some point, the crisis collided with our individual lives with a magnitude that forced us to grapple with the once-unthinkable changes that were headed our way, said Graf.

The memory tends to latch onto new experiences, he said, so people have potent recollections of when they recognized we were on the precipice of a seismic societal shift.

“We always remember the beginning of big things in our lives,” said Graf. “It was a huge event for every person, however they experienced it.”

Graf thinks we may be seeing early signs of what memory scientists call a “reminiscence bump.”

The concept typically refers to the tendency for older adults to have heightened recall of events that occurred during their adolescence and young adulthood.

Graf said the “firsts” we encounter during this coming-of-age period help define our sense of self, so those memories tend to stick with us for the rest of our lives.

He said other types of life-altering experiences can also create “reference points” for what we remember, such as experiences of war or moving to a new country.

In the long term, he said, it’s possible that the pandemic will produce a “reminiscence bump” as our memories cluster around the radical changes we’re dealing with.

“For anybody who now lives through this COVID-19 crisis, and especially for the young people, this will be a reference point in their lives.”

But Graf said there’s another factor that could muddle our memories of the COVID-19 crisis: the mundanity of life under lockdown.

Many of the occasions and interactions that shake up our routines are now off-limits, he said.

While we may have detailed recollections of the pandemic’s mass disruptions, it could be harder for people to summon the specifics of day-to-day life, he said.

“This year will appear in our memory as surprisingly long, despite the fact that what we’ll remember is that there was a year(when) … there was nothing to do.”

Angela Failler, a professor of women’s and gender studies at University of Winnipeg, said the prospect of remembering the pandemic feels far away, because we are still in a period of loss and mourning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the deep-rooted inequities afflicting marginalized communities, so it’s unsurprising that the crisis has served as a backdrop to an overdue reckoning with systemic racism,said Failler, who is also the Canada Research Chair on culture and public memory.

“We can trace lines through histories of racism that lead to the present.”

As we reflect on the past year, Failler said we shouldn’t be yearning for a return to “normal,” but rather, imagining how this could be an opportunity to change everything for the better.

“Beyond the immediate urgency, I’m worried that people whose lives are going to be affected in negative ways are going to be forgotten,” said Failler.

“We’ve actually known that these systems don’t work for a lot of people for a long time. And it’s taking a crisis like this to potentially see some changes.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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