History Becomes Personal: Living Through the Pandemic of 2020

What can be gained from a difficult time? I find myself grappling with this question daily as I’m sure many Americans are. Like most, I do not have a clear role in society to combat the coronavirus pandemic. I am not a nurse, a doctor, or an essential  worker of any kind. I want to work in a grocery store, but my parents have forbade this: I could put my 64 year old mother and my twin sisters with asthma at risk if I bring the virus home. So I am merely a student, told by my parents, health experts and government officials that the best thing I can do right now is to remain inside and follow the social distancing guidelines. It doesn’t feel like enough of a contribution, because I want to do something more active, more tangible, more satisfying.

During my undergraduate career as a history major at Trinity, I have studied disasters both global and local. I have read about the devastating impact the Great Depression had on our country in the 1930s; how the food lines became endlessly long and people grew tired and weary of struggling day to day for basic necessities merely to survive. I have read Ellie Weisel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Aushwitz, both moving firsthand accounts of the Jewish genocide during WWII. I have researched the environmentally disastrous effects of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Anytime I have immersed myself in a different historical catastrophe, I always have appreciated how peaceful and safe my life has been compared to those terrible days. I always reflect on how lucky I am to be living in the twenty-first century with all the benefits that a modern lifestyle holds. However, as the coronavirus pandemic takes hold of America, and I witness reports of people dying by the thousands daily, I am now personally confronting a catastrophe of historic proportions.

For the past month, I have been cooped up at home in order to obey rigid social distancing policies. At times I feel as though I am in a sci-fi film where technology rules over everyones lives and we all are slaves to a screen. We cannot imagine surviving without technology now. Without our cell phones with their myriad apps, everything from food delivery to language learning, without our computers for remote work and social media, or without our twenty four hour cable news, how could we weather this storm?

 In my house my sisters work remotely on computers and my mom stays in touch with the world through CNN and MSNBC. My mother’s coffee shop friends have started virtual coffee through zoom. I teach young Chinese children English online. Four new adorable Chinese children’s faces greet me on my screen  for half hour group lessons several times a day. I love my online teaching, but I deeply miss the immediacy of my former daily social interactions with friends, casual acquaintances, even strangers. 

Although we are living in peacetime, the way society has shifted to combat this coronavirus makes me feel like we are at war–a different, silent war. Not only a war for our lives, but also a war against our natural instincts to socialize and be heard and seen in person, not over a screen. So here we are, my third year into college, and it seems that history has suddenly caught up with me but in a twisted dystopian way unlike anything I have ever read about.

Whether I like it or not, the coronavirus pandemic has forced me to put my life on hold and look at the bigger picture. It has reminded me that we are all connected—our cities, our states, our country and the world. It is futile to pretend this disaster will not affect me or you because it has likely already touched everyone in ways both trivial and profound…whether that is in the form of a sick loved one or not being able to see family and friends.

 For me, one upside is that  I have realized that I can live without as much as I thought I needed—attending classes, spending time with friends, going to church, going out to eat, shopping, and studying in the library or at coffee shops are all luxuries I no longer enjoy. I surprisingly can make do with a lot less while being in one space for a prolonged period of time. The coronavirus quarantine has essentially made me realize that I have an inner strength—that some peace and happiness can be cultivated within me.  For those who have studied Buddhism or meditation, that might seem obvious. But for me it is a newfound breakthrough. I find happiness through long walks, meditation, and prayer. I find enjoyment by reading Jane Austen novels and self-help books. I have found my own little happiness during this time because I am lucky enough to be away from the frontlines of the battle against the virus… nestled in the comfort of my old, spacious, dependable colonial home.

While being at home I have committed to becoming the best version of myself possible… whether this means improving my Japanese language skills, reviewing my knowledge of American history, or reading about positive psychology. My first way that I have been productive is by keeping a daily Japanese routine. I use Duolingo, the language learning application, to brush up on various topics like food, family, and weather. Some of the Japanese I am practicing I already know, but I also find I’m learning new words as well. In order to ensure I am growing my knowledge of kanji characters I have been making a flashcard with a new word each day. I also have a special kanji application that allows me to go back and write kanji I have already memorized. I have even been keeping in touch through an app called Line with my Japanese friends whom I met on my semester abroad in Nagoya, Japan last year.

With that being said, this has also been one of the most challenging times because I feel so helpless and unable to make a difference. I know that the commercials on TV and the newscast reporters tell me that staying home will save lives, and it will, but it doesn’t seem like enough. My dad is the real hero. He’s the one who goes to work at the Emergency Room at Emerson Hospital every day, assessing coronavirus patients and admitting the ones with bad enough cases into the hospital. Although he and my mom are divorced and I already do not see him much, it was hard when he said I might not see him for months. A couple weeks ago, in preparation for the possibility that he might get sick, my dad texted me and my sisters that he has written his will. So far he has managed to stay healthy and for that I cannot be more grateful. My sisters who are twenty-five-year-old twins have left their one room DC apartment to come back to the comfort of home. Soon my oldest sister who is twenty six will also come home making it a full house. All of them are lucky enough to have work, so I can recognize that my family has been spared the worst of the coronavirus impacts. 

And yet here I am at home, sleeping more than ever and watching too much TV. Staying in seems like a lame cop out. An excuse. Avoidant. I am someone who likes to go to climate change rallies, to sign petitions, to raise my voice, to stand up to injustice and make my opinions heard. I am not one to go quietly through a global disaster. And yet this coronavirus is a silent killer that is doing its best to silence me.  It does not need my chants in the streets. It takes lives without my consent and there is no real way to protest against disease. The only way to protest is to help stop the spread by following social distancing guidelines and praying for those who have COVID19. I will keep all those who have tragically died during this pandemic in my heart as I continue to forge on. Everyday I will appreciate sunshine and the way the tree branches cut patterns in the blue sky. Everyday I will rise up in good spirits and hold my head high. I will continue to enjoy the little things: walks, playing board games with my sisters, and count my blessings. I hope through this tragedy that I will be more grateful than I might have been and have more compassion for others. We all can play our small part in that way.

About the author:Elizabeth Sockwell is a history major at Trinity College who loves studying Japanese, teaching English online, and going for long walks. 

Copyrighted by Elizabeth Sockwell. Editorial assistance provided by Beatrice Alicea. This work is part of the “Telling Our Covid Stories” project by the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College. 

As the creator of “History Becomes Personal: Living Through the Pandemic of 2020″ I agree that this is my original work, and that I retain the copyright. Also, I grant permission for this work to be distributed with my full name to the public, including formats such as print and the Internet. Under this agreement, I keep the copyright to my work, but agree to share it under a Creative Commons Attribution—NonCommercial—NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (BY-NC-ND). This allows the public to freely download and share my work, but only if they credit the creator, use it for non-commercial purposes, and do not make any changes. Learn more about Creative Commons licenses at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/