Retrospection Among Strangers

Over a year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals across the United States reflect on how their lives have changed and remained the same. For some, the pandemic has allowed for positive shifts, while others struggle to envision what life “after COVID” looks like.

By Sydnee Walker, Shannon Golden and Carley Landry

It’s hard to expect what someone might draw when asked to create an image representing their life during the past year. How can a drawing encapsulate the many emotions, challenges, triumphs, losses and introspection each person has felt throughout a global pandemic? 

While on a zoom call with each other, a group of individuals from around the United States shared drawings with each other. Each person held up a sheet of paper, some with marker sketches and others with faint pencil lines. Marco Ramondo held up a drawing of himself as a stick figure holding a bottle of wine. 

“I suppose like most of us, I had a bit more free time in the last six months, and I think that’s driven a lot of us to boredom, and eventually to drink,” Ramondo chuckled.

Krunali Patel drew a rollercoaster. Taylor Newsome’s stick figure-self was surrounded by lots of dark scribbles. Oliva Leadbetter drew a clock, mentioning that even though the past year has felt rushed, she has had more time to do things she enjoys. Each individual created a unique drawing, but many expressed this sentiment of being simultaneously overwhelmed and grounded during the past year. 

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the lives of people around the world in countless ways. With recent guideline changes and growing vaccination rates, many feel the end is in sight. The unknowns of the pandemic have caused tremendous stress but have also allowed for calm introspection. Individuals participating in an MIT Media Lab generative dialogue discussion found that the pandemic made them reconsider who they trust, their personal priorities and how they connect with others.

Almost 500 days have passed since The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in China. Since then, there have been over 172 million reported coronavirus cases worldwide. Scientists worked tirelessly since January 2020 to develop a vaccine, shaving years off of the typical development process. Tens of thousands of individuals participated in clinical trials for each vaccine. Now, over 62% of U.S. adults have had at least one vaccine dose

Only six percent of more than 1000 individuals who responded to a September 2020 survey had a “great deal” of trust in pharmaceuticals to look out for their interests

Ramondo, Patel and Newsome expressed that their lack of trust in big pharmaceutical companies stems from the blurred line between best interests and monetary pursuits. Erika Hernandez noted that she did not trust “big pharma” for the same reasons she struggles to trust social media, religion, celebrities and politicians: it’s hard to understand their intentions. 

According to The Commonwealth Fund, “The US suffers from the most inefficient health system in the developed world.” The U.S. government has to coordinate vaccination efforts through private companies and health care facilities, making broad-scale vaccination a challenge. “I think that for a lot of people, their fears and their lack of knowledge on vaccines make it so not enough people are being vaccinated,” said Leadbetter. “That’s definitely a concern.”

Many have used social media to stay informed during the coronavirus pandemic. In an October 2020 study conducted by JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, 73.6 percent of participants said they turned to social media when seeking information about COVID-19, but trusted government information far more. 

Newsome noted that the media also negatively impact public trust and, in turn, spread misinformation about vaccines. “It tends to focus on the negative and then it gets people really scared. A lot of that can be seen with even just the side effects of the vaccine,” she said.You hear a couple of stories of really bad side effects and then you worry so much when the risk is a lot lower than you think it is.”

Hernandez mentioned that she has more trust in specialized journalistic sources. Newsome noted that it depended on where she was getting her information from. Despite expressing varying levels of trust in varying facets of society, trust in oneself seems to be a common sentiment. The group agreed that they each trusted themselves to gather and check information about COVID-19. 

While people worldwide tried to keep up with the ever-changing information about the coronavirus pandemic at a large scale, they also experienced personal challenges. Everyone experienced loss in some way, whether of opportunities, connection or kin. With these losses, many have found it easier to prioritize what matters to them.  

Lucy Ivanova chose to focus more on keeping herself and her family healthy rather than the larger scale impacts of the pandemic. She is currently undergoing treatment for an illness. She took extensive precautions to protect herself over the last year, so she could continue treatment. She has not seen any of her family members –aside from her son and husband– since before the pandemic began. “We don’t go anywhere,” she said. “It’s just the house, the backyard and grocery shopping.”

Those with compromised immune systems, such as Ivanova, live with the added fear that their bodies will not respond properly to the virus. The CDC considers immunocompromised  individuals high-risk and suggests that they take additional precautionary measures to stay safe. 

Ivanova expressed that her trust in the CDC has fluctuated in the past year. She said that first and foremost, she trusts herself to research and double-check information when it comes to staying safe while she fights her illness. 

Experts around the world have weighed in on the varying risks of the virus. The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation urges immunocompromised individuals to stay home. It emphasizes that, “Physical distancing is really the most effective way to ensure your safety. Rely on friends and family to help you with things like groceries.” 

Ivanova requires frequent treatment for her illness, and if she shows symptoms of COVID-19, the hospital has to cancel her treatment appointment. She has been able to limit contact with others but cannot avoid potential exposure when it comes to one member of her immediate family: her young son. 

One day, he came home from school with a cough, so Ivanova stayed up late researching COVID-19 symptoms in children. She said the lack of information online only made her anxiety greater. Ivanova said she felt “completely helpless.”

She took her son to get tested the following morning at an urgent care facility. The test came back negative. “I just felt so relieved,” said Ivanova, recalling the moment she found out she had not been exposed to COVID-19.

For others, illness from the coronavirus impacted their lives despite taking precautions. Krunali Patel watched her parents’ health deteriorate after they both contracted the virus at the beginning of the year. “We did everything we were supposed to,” said Patel. “You don’t think that it’s going to happen to you until it happens to you.” 

Patel’s parents recovered from the virus, but she expressed a similar feeling of helplessness, unable to care for her parents and unsure of how the virus would impact their health in the future. Scientists and doctors are still working to understand what lasting health effects might arise for those infected during the pandemic. Studies about the pulmonary, neurological and cardiovascular impacts of the virus are ongoing. For those like Patel, who had to watch their loved ones get sick, these unknowns cause persistent fear. 

Newsome, a medical student in the facilitated group, was abroad studying medicine when the coronavirus pandemic began.  virus hit and had no way to make it back home. 

Within a month, two of her grandparents contracted the COVID-19, one of her grandfathers experienced kidney failure and her grandmother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Newsome is relieved that they are all okay now but recalled the helplessness she felt being a continent away from her family. 

Although each individual was in a different part of the country, sharing their experiences with others via zoom, they found commonalities in the surprisingly positive outcome of the last year. Newsome was happy that she got to bake and journal more during quarantine. Hernandez was grateful that none of her family members contracted the virus and that they remained healthy. Ramondo is hopeful that he can get the vaccine soon. 

Throughout the pandemic, trusting, prioritizing and connecting with others has been a challenge. Still, sharing moments of hope, challenges and small triumphs is capable of bringing a group of otherwise strangers together. 

“I think something that happens a lot is people focus on their differences and how everyone’s different,” said Newsome. “But I think at the core, people are quite similar.”

This student-produced story was reported and written in Professor DeVigal’s engaged journalism class in the winter of 2021. The course focused on the Generative Dialogue Framework (GDF) to host small-group conversations with folks across the U.S. Learn more about this process in this article: University of Oregon students test a new framework for dialogue-driven reporting.