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

Sports broadcaster and 30-year high school football coach Farhan Lalji. (Image via farhanlalji.com)
Farhan Lalji chats about the new B.C. high school sports governance proposal

Lalji, a 30-year high school football coach, thinks the new proposal will be bad for student athletes

Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke. (File photo)
Surrey councillor trying to get policing referendum on the table, again

‘I’m sending it back for clarification,’ mayor decides

A simulation lab at Surrey Memorial Hospital has been helping healthcare professionals train during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)
Surrey Memorial Hospital’s simulation lab trains professionals during COVID-19 pandemic

Surrey Hospitals Foundation contributing $100K toward new technologies

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
Dr. Bonnie Henry says Surrey immunization targeted at neighbourhoods most at risk

‘What we’ve been looking at is the case rates by neighbourhood,’ provincial health officer says

A horse and driver cruise around the track at Fraser Downs in Cloverdale Sept. 14, 2020 amid smoke from U.S. forest fires. Harness Racing B.C. announced it’s halting the spring season two weeks early because of a lack of money and says racing won’t continue in September without and influx of cash. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
Harness racing suspended at Fraser Downs

Spring season ends early, 135 workers out of jobs

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Nick Warmerdam and his dog Diesel are inviting locals to check out the Lakeland Farm U-pick Flower Farm this spring. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
VIDEO & SLIDESHOW: Abbotsford’s Lakeland Flowers opens for spring

Tulip farm attraction opened on April 14, open to the public daily seven days a week

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
RCMP intercept vehicle fleeing with infant taken from Kamloops hospital

The baby was at the hospital receiving life-saving care

The female driver of this Jeep Grand Cherokee (right) was driving erratically with a young child inside on Highway 1 eastbound. After hitting a barrier and a parked car, she finally exited the highway at Yale Road West and came to a stop. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Video captures woman driving erratically with child after hitting barrier, car on Hwy 1 in Chilliwack

Smoke seen coming from SUV as it continues to travel eastbound of shoulder of highway

Former Pitt Meadows city councillor David Murray was convicted of sex assault, and is now being sued by the victim. (files)
Former Pitt Meadows city councillor sued for sex assault

David Murray was convicted in 2017 of sexually assaulting a teen 25 years earlier

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Most Read