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

Stettler Mayor Sean Nolls and Stettler County Reeve Larry Clarke sign a proclamation for International Economic Development Week which runs May 9th to 15th.
photo submitted
Stettler celebrates International Economic Development Week May 9th to 15th

The week builds awareness of the positive work economic developers do to enhance local economic impact

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau rejects Alberta cabinet minister accusation PM wants COVID-19 health disaster

Alberta has recently had COVID-19 case rates that are the highest in North America

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, April 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Jewish group extremely disturbed by reports of Hitler Youth flags in Alberta towns

RCMP spoke to the property owner, who refused to remove the flag

Alberta’s environment department has known for years that toxins from old coal mines are contaminating populations of the province’s official animal, the bighorn sheep. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Craig Bihrl
Alberta government knew bighorn sheep contaminated with coal mine selenium, scientist says

Jeff Kneteman says Alberta Environment has known about the problem in bighorn sheep for years

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives his COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Ottawa, Friday, April 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
75% of Canadians need 1st vaccine dose to have more normal summer: Trudeau

The country is on track to hit a major milestone on the road to COVID-19 herd immunity Tuesday, with 40% vaccinated with a 1st dose

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Alberta to stop giving first doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot as supply dwindles

There aren’t any confirmed shipments of AstraZeneca coming, and the province only has 8,400 doses of it left

Winnipeg Jets’ Andrew Copp (9) and Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) watch an incoming shot during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, April 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
‘Very jealous’: Canadian teams can’t take advantage of NHL’s relaxed COVID-19 rules

League eased some tight COVID-19 health and safety protocols over the weekend for fully vaccinated clubs

File photo
Arrest made for armed robbery in Millet, Wetaskiwin RCMP continue to investigate

Wetaskiwin RCMP are investigating an armed robbery took place May 4, 2021 in Millet, Alta.

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

Most Read