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

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

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

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

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

FILE – NDP Leader John Horgan, right, and local candidate Mike Farnworth greet one another with an elbow bump during a campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday, September 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. won’t be using random individual road stops to enforce travel rules: Safety Minister

Minister Mike Farnworth says travel checks only being considered at major highway junctions, ferry ports

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

Mak Parhar speaks at an anti-mask rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Parhar was arrested on Nov. 2 and charged with allegedly violating the Quarantine Act after returning from a Flat Earth conference held in Geenville, South Carolina on Oct. 24. (Flat Earth Focker/YouTube.com screenshot)
Judge tosses lawsuit of B.C. COVID-denier who broke quarantine after Flat Earth conference

Mak Parhar accused gov, police of trespass, malfeasance, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping and fraud

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Christy Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, is the first of several present and past politicians to appear this month before the Cullen Commission, which is investigating the causes and impact of B.C.’s money-laundering problem over the past decade. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

The former B.C. premier testified Tuesday she was concerned the problem was ‘apparently at an all-time high’

Most Read