Despite us living in a story economy where pretty much everything is either said to be a story or converted into one -if it is not already- the Covid pandemic has, in my opinion, remained a surprisingly understoried phenomenon. Social media stories everything, but the responses to Covid I have seen in my personal algorithmic bubbles have been meme-based survival humor or people positioning themselves in one of the binary camps on several issues (pro or anti mask, pro or anti vaccination, pro or anti Covid passport). Storying the global crises of which Covid is only one example is not easy, but it is essential. It is with stories we make sense, feel, and take action. If you do not have it clear what kind of story you are living in, the mis- and disinformation machinery of modern times will happily take over what you thought was yours. Storytelling is not about lies or fantasy or fiction. It is about putting order to things that seem out of control and doing it in a way that leaves YOU the space to be an agent within that story.
Perhaps Covid changed our lives too fast and too deep. Now that Europe is in war before we had the time to process where we are with Covid, the stories of what just happened with Covid and how to use it to live in a better world seem trivial.
As what follows is a rambling, I will make my points right now. I think more attention should be paid to processing what Covid did and still does to individuals and collectives, to work places, schools, universities, hospitals, and other organizations all around the world. In addition to the pandemic, we need more effort to skillfully storying the global crises so that individuals can tie their stories to the bigger picture, make sense of the overwhelming events following each other in rapid succession, and figure out how to exist in these times as a responsible agent. In other words, we should tell our individual and collective, entangled stories to understand what we can learn from the pandemic, what we did well to adjust and limit the spreading of the pandemic, and what we need to stop doing now because what served once does not necessarily serve anymore. Why? To live better in a world that might not be in the hands of a raving pandemic but that continues to be in the hands of a raving climate change (and war).
Storying the Global Crises Starts with Yourself: My Drafts of a Covid-Story
My Covid era started by looking at the CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED screens at Helsinki airport with my two suitcases filled with my most important books and necessities, hoping that my flight to Amsterdam would not end up under one of those scary capslocked words. I had changed my tickets to the Netherlands to leave earlier than originally planned, because there was a pandemic approaching, and I could not stay in Finland -I had sold everything and had nothing but a mattrass in my empty house. I managed to take the flight. The fancy breakfast booked by my boyfriend to welcome me to the Netherlands changed into a paper back we had to take back to our hotel room. We still thought the Covid would last a couple of weeks and then the annoyance would be over. In that, we were in alignment with probably the majority of people, and obviously, we were all ridiculously wrong.
My initial Covid era consisted of sitting in my windowless studio attic and trying to figure out a new life in a new country, in a situation where everything was closed and cancelled. It was not easy, but saying that feels very lame. I think Covid gave a lot of material for people living in remarkable safety and boredom to think they -or perhaps I just mean me- suffered tremendously.
The biggest challenge was spending so much time at home; Covid forced me, like so many of us, to take a hard look into the mirror and to face some psychological stuff from which it is easy to divert your attention away from when the world is open. In the closed Covid world, the issues were right there and demanded to be acknowledged. Having survived the lockdowns together made us very strong, but that was not the case for everyone. After all, in large parts of the world many families had only survived because they could avoid talking to each other, and the pandemic forced them closed inside together for extended periods of time. The result was sometimes terrifying, and many people’s Covid stories are presumably also messy and sad accounts of relationships that broke down.
At some point it felt like it was impossible to say we have other problems than Covid. People invested so much energy in showing and displaying moral supremacy related to Covid, especially on social media. I remember the scare in writing an essay that was critical about how the pandemic had been treated in mainstream media. Would people be aware enough to read it as a media analysis, not as a conspiracy theory? It turned out most were, some not. The polarizations and equivalent identity investments were strong, pleads with their accompanying hashtags and profile picture frames spread in the social media. First the plead was to stay home, then to wear a mask, then to get vaccinated. We have never seen such investments in public displays of having personally taken virtuous actions in many other issues that likewise would have warranted some pleads to action and invitations to enact moral agency.
Lockdowns came and went. The vaccination arrived and was welcomed as the salvation that would allow us to attend parties again without fearing death. Then it came clear you need two or three doses of it, and even then, the new variants might take you or someone else down. The dramatic numbers showing new cases of Covid vanished from the front pages of most newspapers.
I started working at one university in January 2021 and in another one in November 2021. I had plenty of work, most of it from home. I was never sick, unemployed, or lonely during the pandemic, and it is for these reasons I feel my Covid era has been entirely different from what so many others have had to endure, so different from the collective story. Then again, a touch of a sense of alienation is probably the undertone of most suffering anyway.
The fact that I have had even more work during Covid and that I have not suffered any personal losses due to the pandemic makes me privileged, but it does not mean I should not say anything about Covid and how to learn from this experience. There are other people, too, who had such a privileged Covid experience, and I fear this middle class of Western office workers will just continue living their life after Covid as if that was it. As if now that we can go to a grocery store without wearing a mask and sit inside a café without showing a digital passport it is somehow the end of an era. I wish Covid is not only going to be a lukewarm story of white middle class losing some of their comfort and then getting it back, end of story.
What Kind of Covid-Stories Do We Need Then?
What I felt was the most touching aspect of Covid was the fact that many people from differing backgrounds were often able to agree on something, namely that it takes collaborative action to stop the virus from spreading. There were elements of collaboration in many cultures and countries, just taking a slightly different turn: Finns talked about the spirit of Winter War as they always do, and the Italians sang at balconies and hung rainbows saying “Va tutto bene” in the windows. Of course there was so much disagreeing and protesting and polarization and bad blood, but that was not all of it. Even with their differing theories of why and where the virus emerged in the first place, people united in appreciating the work of doctors and nurses. Even when scared and frustrated, many agreed that fearmongering and anger might not be the right emotions to ride on.
Words like collaboration and cooperation and unity are becoming almost like a prayer, the mantra of our individualized carefree times. We look into each other and hope that beyond the ever strong me, myself, and I we can find some kind of a “we”, a place where we can agree on something and get things done. Yet, I feel it is precisely this core of we-ness, of entanglement even, that we need in the Covid stories in order for them to matter and bring us forward.
We live in a Covid-transformed world even if it feels the virus is now only a mere canvas behind the more interesting and relevant events. That is why it feels that it is important to write our Covid inspired books and have some Covid movies and TV shows to inspire pandemic storytelling and to make us see what happened and what does it mean. I hope these Covid narratives make meaningful connections with the genre of climate fiction. Comprehending such an unusual event outside the context and questions of climate change is simply intellectually lazy. It also weakens the power of stories to help us tie together events and make larger connections.
When I say things have changed but we don’t fully recognize the wideness of the changes and that we are tired, who do I mean? Who is “we”?
The Pandemic Academia
Let me write about one specific we. Academics. University people are notorious overworkers. Since Covid, they have become glued to their screens. In the early pandemic, we protested against our homes becoming offices. We were not used to every meeting taking place on Teams or Zoom or having to teach and supervise online. Universities invested a lot of time and effort in getting online lectures going smoothly. The transition was huge, many struggled, some worried that it’s going to be a YouTube university from now on.
Many have pointed out that the pandemic forced Academia out of its comfort zone. See for example this video by Professor Tara Brabazon on productivity in tough times. Tara also also points out some of the illnesses of academia that the pandemic allowed to heal. The pandemic caused academia to leave behind useless meetings that could have been an email and log onto Zoom instead of traveling for 7 hours to talk in a conference for 15 minutes. However, now that I have emails and Zooms, I have considerably less 3D -experiences, breaks, new views, meeting coffees, anything that is not my desk with its piles of paper covered in cat hair and rows of lipstick at the side because the video call platforms otherwise make me look like a zombie.
Of course there is more efficiency and more streamlined processes, but there is also a flipside to it. Now we can sit at the computer for 14 hours a day -no commuting, no useless meetings! If your work and your free time both happen on the same screen, where is the boundary, where is the structure, where is the chance to tell yourself it’s time to move from free time to work or the other way around? Some don’t get much done, some get way too much done. Many are not doing well. Academia cannot become the synonym for people who read and write texts on a small screen and occasionally click themselves into a Teams meeting. That being said, we obviously also need to get rid of the tired pre-pandemic thinking that it is quintessential to travel abroad for conferences for reasons that might have less to do with science than many want to admit.
A thing that is not only academia specific but that illustrates much of the attempts of storying the global crises is that the pandemic lasted for so long that now there is a deep tiredness looming around. I believe we are getting used to this tiredness the more we slide away from pre-pandemic life. We kind of feel we miss something but cannot really put our finger on it. Perhaps there is a tiredness of screens and solitude, lack of 3D meetings, lack of changing spaces. Tiredness of bad news. Yet, it feels such a privileged pain that anyone with sensitivity to what is going on in the world will swallow it and move on. We are tired of restrictions and bad news and fear and losing people, but how to keep the lessons hopefully learnt during the pandemic alive even in a post-pandemic world, a world to which we are rushing into because we are just so very tired?
Storying Covid and Moving On
At some point all the individual stories we needed to tell about Covid died at the sentence “But someone is dying!” and that was probably rightly so, because the world is too full of individual Western well off self-appreciating stories as it is. Telling my story of Teams tiredness and hard lockdown was always kind of trivial (just contrast it with stories of Covid doctors and nurses sleeping on the floors of overflooded hospitals). And now that it might not be so trivial anymore, it is too late. People are looking around and saying “Perhaps Covid was not such a big problem after all”. Staying aware of what is the big picture and how things relate to each other in a wider context is a good thing in storying the global crises. However, it cannot mean that we start sweeping problems under the rug simply because one issue seems more pressing than the other. Who decides what is pressing? Often it is the media and social media with its algorithms, not you.
Are we going to be a society, a culture, a group, an individual, that acknowledges Covid caused havoc and things are not the same anymore? We are not the same anymore? Covid has made deep and nuanced damage to us, and it is okay to be confused and tired.
Are we weary enough of bad news for Covid to become a dress rehearsal for climate change?
What can we learn from Covid that would make the lesson count? Because devastating occurrences even on my (and yours, ours) Western doorsteps are not finishing here.
We need the force of shared sense of responsibility to carry on to the post-pandemic life and to our attitudes and actions toward the environment. Most people mostly attempt to be kind and not destroy, but that is not enough. The Covid was not the first nor is it going to be the last pandemic sweeping over the globe. We need to stay more tuned to the environment and to each other, more mindful of our mutual entanglements. A fundamental change in our Western lifestyle is needed. It is not going to happen unless we tell a lot of stories about how Covid was and what it means -and make those stories about feelings and action, make them personal and collective. Transform them to a bigger story about current post-pandemic life, a story we want to keep living true every single day.
Storying the Global Crises: From Covid to Climate Change
I tried to own it, the pandemic. Could I ever own climate change the same way? With Covid, the socially desirable actions that were confirmed as effective and communicated clearly and unanimously by many instances to the people were clearly delineated. The action invitations embedded in them were simple: Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep a distance, work from home. During the pandemic, what to do to make things better felt relatively clear. Personally, it also felt important to not give in to fear or get brainwashed by the shock-inducing clickbait news or social media wars. Washing your hands, keeping distance, all that, yet with a mindset that there are other problems in the world, too, that are connected or not connected to Covid but that still matter.
I wonder if climate change can ever be formulated into a story that would make it feel like you can do something, should do something, and that what you do actually matters in the big picture. How many of such stories and for how many different audiences would we need? How to keep going knowing that even if you do your best most of the time, there is never salvation? Never a tick in the box, a sense of completion.
Storying the global crises in a way that ties together the individual, the local, and the global is extremely difficult -especially if one still wants to feel there is space for hope, creativity, and love within that story.
Covid invited many personal stories of actions taken for collective good. My sad prediction is that climate change will always struggle to do the same. Somehow the individual Covid actions seemed to make sense to people in a different way, and the group pressure was palpable -me taking a vaccination only matters if you take it, too!
In the collective Covid communications on social media we saw many brilliant examples of people signaling simultaneously that they are taking an action for the common good while making fun of the situation -a sense of self-irony entangled with a sense of common responsibility. One example are the countless memes and pictures of middle class Western people taking part in online meetings wearing a formal upper part (such as a blazer or a jacket) and and informal lower part (such as pajamas and wool socks). Such shared middle class humor indicating that one is part of a collective doing something so that ultimately we can all stay safer, is somehow not available for climate change actions. “Hey, I’m also doing what I do -travelling elsewhere for holidays- but I’m actually just camping at my backyard.” There is no one united climate campaign where people would change their profile pictures into “I will not fly again” or post pictures of themselves doing a classic, shared, acknowledged climate action with an ironic or sexy social media hashtag.
I wish that we can emerge out of Covid appreciating life and trusting that we can achieve something together. I am tempted to write “We all hope we learnt something from the pandemic” but I realize this “we” is pretentious and pointless, and that it only indicates how many people always hope we would learn the same things. The things never change (love, not being selfish, caring more), and we never learn enough or if we do, we forget immediately. Storying the global crises means acknowledging that humans have always storied them and it has never prevented sad history from being repeated.
I hope we could tell meaningful and real Covid survival stories and make them about becoming kinder and more environmentally aware. I hope they are not about vaccination fights or about how uneducated and stupid are the others that believe differently. Nobody wants to be the monster in any collective story. Perhaps our individual and collective Covid stories could be about how we realized we can do online and from home many things that did not seem possible before. That we can show concern and do things together.
Unfortunately, stories of eating less meat or cutting down consumption or donating money to plant trees might never become viral or uniting in the sense they could or should. Nevertheless, these stories are already out there, have been for a long time, and are still alive to be taken part in, shared, developed. A story is not just a story, it is an invitation to action, a motivation, a reminder of who you are and what you stand for. Storying the global crises is about activity and activism, not about bedtime stories to lull you into a blissfully ignorant sleep.
War -and What Now?
You can and should have access to more than one story. Having only one template does not work in storying global crises. You need plenty in order to make the crises relevant but not too overwhelming and to invite you to feel and think -even if the problem is not yet, at the moment, at your back door.
As I write this, war has broken out in Europe. Is it the most inconsiderate and immoral thing imaginable to write about Covid and climate change when we have a tyrant driving his tanks over innocent land? Outside, I hear the battering not of tanks but of marching music. It is the carnival weekend, and the beats of jolly music, funny costumes, and dancing people have taken over the streets in my home city in the Netherlands. The carnival was cancelled already twice because of Covid. Not this time anymore, say the people and put on a neon-colored wig and a crown on their head, and drink beer to jumpy drumming. I wish they had put all this energy into organizing a protest, I wish they would wear blue and yellow and march to the nearest Russian embassy, but then again, they are not, and I am not at this moment, either. I do not understand a carnival when we have a war, but I also understand many of “them”, the Dutch, do not feel that “we” have a war. I as a Finn feel deeply that it is “us”, all people of the free world, that have been attacked and that the war is in our back yard.
I am afraid the tiredness and overwhelm that I have mentioned in this essay are also some of the symptoms of living your life with your eyes and heart open in these times. These symptoms are not going anywhere. So many heavy, global, overwhelming, life-threatening crises have crammed themselves onto this planet in such a short time. In storying the global crises we cannot attempt think about all horror all the time. We simply cannot feel all the anguish, not all the time. Therefore, the stories we live by must be flexible and also allow some breathing space. One thing is sure: A guilt-provoking, fear-inducing dystopia is not a story that gets you up from the bed in the morning and inspires you to take care of anything at all.
The burden of living with a heart open is heavy, but the cost of numbing yourself is too high. A good story to read, write, and tell is one that allows to feel and do something but does not imply one person alone has to feel the feels and do the deeds all the time and all alone. There needs to be hope, humor, and a sense of ripple effects to your actions. It is such a tired cliché and so true that we need to reinvent solidarity, caring, collaboration, and empathy in a form that means something in a world that has gone bonkers.
Lastly, storying the global crises should not be merely an academic or artistic endeavor. Start writing down your story, don’t let it be colonized by media outlets or social media algorithms, tell it and make it be about life and death, but in a way that reminds yourself and the rest of us of what it can mean to be a decent human being.