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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

What Really Happened? How the Pandemic Changed My View of History

Closed furniture aisle at Meijer, March 2020
When the governor banned furniture sales in March 2020, I discovered how difficult it is to write "objective" history

When I first started writing about the past, I had lofty ideals. My goal was simple—to find the truth and tell it. I often wished that it was possible to travel back in time, because that would make it easy to figure out what really happened. Lacking the ability to time travel, I had to settle for documents, but I thought that if I could piece together enough of those, I could find the truth.


Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the biggest disruptive event in American society that I had lived through as an adult. I realized from the beginning that it was historic. What a great opportunity to watch history unfold before my very eyes! I’d never have to wonder what actually happened, because I lived through it. No need to time travel—this was happening here and now. I carefully documented all the strange things—the lockdowns, the empty toilet paper shelves, taking college classes over Zoom, the mask rules, the development of the vaccine.


But I quickly discovered that not everyone was seeing things the same way I was. We were all living through the same pandemic—the same moment in time. We were all experiencing the same events, were all affected by the same laws, were all susceptible to the same virus. But we didn’t all perceive those events the same way, and we definitely didn’t react the same way. Even the official statistics were only an approximation of reality—I knew for a fact that not everyone who got COVID was tested, so the case counts were probably on the low side.


I quickly discovered that people’s perceptions of the pandemic were strongly influenced by their preexisting political leanings and worldviews, plus their beliefs about their personal vulnerability to sickness. All the talk about “science-based” decision making was meaningless—it takes years to do scientific studies, and that kind of data about COVID just wasn’t available at the time. Political leaders and individuals alike made decisions based on what they believed was best—not on an objective truth that everyone agreed on. Even worse, I realized that my own perception about the pandemic wasn’t as objective as I had thought. I was experiencing a whole range of emotions—things like anger, frustration, and disbelief that it was actually illegal to buy furniture at the store in March 2020. My “factual” writing about the pandemic, I discovered with horror, was actually biased. I couldn’t write about it objectively while I was living through it.


Living through the pandemic and seeing how different people told different stories about it forever changed my view of history. I realized that the cold, objective facts about the pandemic—numbers of cases, deaths, vaccinations, etc.—weren’t really history. It was the way those facts were connected to people’s lived experiences that made a story—and because everyone’s lived experience was different, there are as many ways of telling the story of the pandemic as there are people in the world.


So I’ve realized that having a time machine would actually not help me write better history. If I were to travel back in time to, say, 1950 to figure out what “really happened” with organic farming, I’d be in the same situation I was in the pandemic. I’d see things through my own perspective, which would be different from the perspectives of each other person involved. I’ve also realized that it’s okay to admit that my storytelling—whether historical or contemporary—is influenced by my beliefs and experiences. It’s actually far more honest to admit that I’m choosing to tell a story in a specific way than to pretend that I’m somehow being “objective” and “scientific” when, in reality, that’s impossible.

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06 jun

Here in Ontario the hospitals where too full so that made for limiting contacts with others to help the hospital staff.

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