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

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

The Dease Lake Airport is receiving $11-million in upgrades funded by the province, Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine and mining companies. (British Columbia Aviation Council)
Major upgrades coming to Dease Lake Airport

Airport to receive $11-million from the province, regional district and mining companies

Dianna Plouffe, right, with Mayor Gladys Atrill in front of Town Hall following the announcement she will be the new CAO> (Facebook photo)
Director of corporate services named Smithers CAO

Dianna Plouffe replaces Alan Harris who is retiring at the end of April

Mabel Todd, 83, of the Nak’azdli First Nation, leads a group of family members and advocates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as they walk along the so-called Highway of Tears in Witset. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Province, feds fund full cell service along ‘Highway of Tears’ following years of advocacy

A ‘critical milestone in helping prevent future tragedies’ after at least 10 Indigenous women murdered, missing along the route

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

Paper Excellence took over Catalyst Paper operations in B.C. in 2018. (Paper Excellence photo)
The plane blasted through an airport fence and down a hill, before stopping before a cement barrier on Highway 5A, right in front of a school bus. Photo submitted.
Student pilot crashes plane onto Highway 5A almost hitting school bus

Aircraft hit pavement right in front of school bus

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Eight-year-old Piper and her family were raising money to help Guinevere, the bearded dragon, get a gynecological surgery. Sadly, the reptile didn’t survive the procedure. (Jackee Sullivan/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Lizard fails to survive surgery, GoFundMe dollars help Langley family offset medical bills

Guinevere, a pet bearded dragon, underwent an ovariectomy on Tuesday

A driver stopped by Saanich police following a road rage incident on April 15 was found to be impaired, in violation of a license restriction and in a damaged vehicle. They received a 90-day driving prohibition and a 30-day vehicle impound. (Saanich Police Traffic Safety Unit/Twitter)
Road rager fails breathalyzer on busy B.C. highway in vehicle he shouldn’t be driving

Saanich police say man was operating vehicle without required ignition lock

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Premier John Horgan booked to get AstraZeneca shot Friday

‘Let’s show all British Columbians that the best vaccine is the one that’s available to you now,’ he said

Doses of the Moderna COVID‑19 vaccine in a freezer trailer, to be transported to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pfizer to increase vaccine deliveries in Canada as Moderna supply slashed

Moderna plans to ship 650,000 doses of its vaccine to Canada by the end of the month, instead of the expected 1.2 million

Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks about the province’s COVID-19 vaccine plans during a news conference at the legislature in Victoria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
P.1 variant likely highest in B.C. due to more testing for it: Dr. Henry

Overall, just under 60% of new daily cases in the province involve variants

Most Read