When dealing with a viral pandemic, the focus tends to be on preventing and treating the physical illness — and rightfully so. But as we’ve learned over the past two months, the psychological and emotional impact of the COVID-19 outbreak can also be debilitating. Fortunately, we’re in a better place now than we were even six weeks ago, coming to terms with the idea that some of our exhaustion stems from moral fatigue, and identifying feelings of loss and sadness brought on by the pandemic as grief. Though it can be overwhelming to try to conceive of what life might be like once this is all over — and bear in mind that we’re still nowhere near being out of the woods — there is value in considering how this public health crisis will impact us collectively as a society. It may seem counterintuitive, but as we move forward through this pandemic, it can be helpful to look to the past for guidance on how humans have dealt with previous collective traumas.
The concept of collective trauma isn’t new, but most of what we know about it comes from clinical work with first and second-generation Holocaust survivors, says Dr. Molly Castelloe, an expert in group psychology. She also directed the documentary film Vamik’s Room, an in-depth look at the work of Dr. Vamik Volkan, a pioneer in the field of collective grief and trauma. But prior to World War II, there are numerous examples of collective traumas throughout American history — from the eradication of native peoples, through slavery, through the Atomic bomb, Vietnam, 9/11, and, more recently, family separation. “Helplessness is central to this shared emotional experience,” she tells Rolling Stone.
So what exactly is collective trauma? According to Castelloe, when a large group of people — like a national, religious, racial, or ethnic group — suffers a massive trauma, there is a shared emotional bond among the wounded individuals. “Collective trauma means first of all, a shared experience of helplessness, disorientation, and loss among a group of people,” she explains. “The threatening event gives rise to a shared identification — despite the fact that the victimized individuals have different personalities and family backgrounds, different coping mechanisms and capacities for resilience.” In some cases, collective trauma can be trans-generational, meaning that some people pass along their trauma to their children, either through unconscious cues (a father once starved in a concentration camp presses his son to bulk up in competitive sports), affective messages (a suffering parent insists a child show gratitude and deny any pain), or stories about the tragic event.
We’re already experiencing the collective trauma of COVID-19, according to Castelloe. “This is a public health catastrophe, a failure of democracy and its ideals,” she explains. “The deaths of so many — the elderly, the infirm, local healthcare workers and first responders — is already everyday a shared trauma among us.”
According to Dr. Gilad Hirschberger, associate professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, there are different types of collective traumas. For example, 9/11 was very immediate, with most of the major events occuring on the same day. And though the ripple effects of the attacks remained with us for much longer than that, the immediate threat was extreme but relatively short. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is “much less extreme, but much more prolonged than 9/11,” Hirschberger explains. “Being able to sustain any moderate level of threat over a long period of time without seeing any end is going to be extremely taxing for populations around the world. It’s both the fear and the anticipation.”
And beyond the loss of life and prolonged anxiety over when and how the pandemic is going to end, we’re also coming to terms with a major blow to our identity as Americans. “Most people are traumatized as individuals, and as family units, and perhaps also the collectivity of, let’s say, New Yorkers,” says Dr. Jeffrey Alexander, a professor of sociology specializing in cultural and collective trauma, and founder and co-director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. “But the collective of the United States is experiencing a sense of tremendous instability and anxiety because we thought we were a great country — the greatest country. And now we see other countries doing a lot better than we are. So then the question is, who are we then?”
Though the 1918 Flu Pandemic occurred more than a century ago, the disbelief that we, as Americans, were unable to handle the outbreak, was similar then to what we’re experiencing today. “We don’t have any kind of medicine at this point, we don’t have any kind of vaccine,” Hirschberger says. “We don’t have anything to ward off this virus, except for our immune system, so it’s really every man and woman facing this virus alone. And there’s something not just unsettling and scary about it, but it also punctures our illusion that we’re modern humans and we’ve overcome nature.” For evidence of this, look no further than our methods to stop the spread of the virus — social distancing and banning public gatherings — which were also the primary strategies in 1918. “The only thing that we have that they didn’t is the hope that we will be able to come up with a medicine, and be able to come up with a vaccine, sometime in the near future,” he adds.
Though there are similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 Flu, the way people handled collective trauma in 1918 was complicated by the fact that it coincided with World War I, explains Dr. Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and public health expert at Johns Hopkins University. “When the flu impact resolved, people actually engaged in a kind of collective amnesia,” she tells Rolling Stone, noting that they were still collectively processing the trauma of the war. Instead, Alexander says that the closest historical parallel to what we’re going through with the COVID-19 pandemic is not the 1918 Flu Pandemic, but the Great Depression. “People had this tremendous pride in the capitalism of the United States and the economy. And this shook everything,” he tells Rolling Stone. “The result of it was a transformation of the role of government: the incorporation of the working class in terms of trade unions, unemployment insurance, the creation of Social Security.”
In theory, there is the potential for similar restructuring to occur once we make it through the COVID-19 pandemic, especially given how the outbreak has shed more light on the existing health and financial disparities and inequities of the country. Hirschberger is optimistic that we’ll emerge on the other side having learned valuable lessons. For example, if an outbreak similar to the one of Ebola that took place in Africa a few years ago were to happen now, we’d likely be far more concerned. “Maybe not out of compassion, but out of the realization that things that happened to people in faraway places are our problem as well,” he explains. Along the same lines, we may take threats like climate change more seriously, given that scientists had also warned of a potential pandemic, and now we’re all dealing with the consequences of largely ignoring that. “In terms of understanding our interconnectedness,” Hirschberger says, “and understanding that problems that seem small now, but develop slowly over time can be dangerous and need to be stopped — I think that kind of realization could be a positive consequence of all of this.”
Part of what happens when dealing with a collective trauma — like the Great Depression or the COVID-19 pandemic — is that people try to identify both the victims and perpetrators of the event, in order to create a succinct narrative surrounding the source of their trauma. Of course, doing so is in no way straightforward. For example, Alexander points out that even though minority communities are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, conservatives may ignore that data and frame this as a general problem where we’re all victims.
And things get even murkier when trying to pinpoint a perpetrator. Yes, a novel virus is behind the pandemic, but that doesn’t really cut it when constructing a narrative around a collective trauma: There has to be at least one “bad guy” who is responsible for the extensive loss of life and the major blow to the economy. Unsurprisingly, the identity of the perpetrator behind the current pandemic and its economic devastation differs depending on who you ask. For some, it’s the large institutions who received a disproportionate amount of the money that Congress allocated, instead of it going to smaller businesses who need it more. For others, it’s our current for-profit healthcare and insurance systems, which exacerbate already existing health disparities, making it even more difficult for people to get the care they needed during the pandemic. Some blame the current administration for how they’ve handled the outbreak. Meanwhile, others focus on China as the primary perpetrators of everything.
If it seems as though our quest to pinpoint the perpetrators of the pandemic is political now, just wait until we get closer to the November election. Alexander says that we should expect to see both Democrats and Republicans using collective trauma as a way of creating their own narrative, making the case as to why they should be elected. This will likely involve the Democrats placing the blame squarely on the president for how he handled the outbreak — especially during the first few weeks — and making the case that unless we have a change in leadership, we will continue to be traumatized. Republicans, on the other hand, will continue to blame China, and try to associate presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden with China.
Whether or not we realize it, we’re constantly encountering physical reminders of past collective trauma and grief. We may walk past a war memorial every day without stopping to think about the event that prompted its construction in the first place. As Volkan puts it in Castelloe’s documentary Vamik’s Room: “We build monuments — and whatever feelings are left, we lock them in marble and metal.” These structures anchor our experience of loss in visual and spatial representation, “giving concrete form to unspoken emotion,” Castelloe says. “Introspection is a key part of this developmental process: to be able to look inside oneself and tolerate the most painful feelings of sorrow, disappointment and guilt.”
While there may have been a collective amnesia about the 1918 Flu Pandemic thanks to the trauma of World War I, when Americans went through post-war rituals — building memorials and monuments — it was still a way to process grief as a group. “These public rituals and public monuments are an important part of grief and mourning,” Schoch-Spana says.
At the same time, Schoch-Spana says that public remembrances are an inherently political activity, and when we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic and remember the suffering, it remains to be seen whether we’ll tell the story of disproportionate impacts on communities of color. “What will our monuments look like and whose faces will be represented? The heroic self-sacrifice of doctors and nurses is a very easy narrative to tell,” she explains. “I don’t mean to diminish the types of sacrifices that are going on in the health sector, but that type of story is more socially palatable than a story of disparate, massively disproportionate impacts on communities of color.”
And though right now, deciding who to commemorate on a plaque or memorial may not seem as pressing as addressing the current public health crisis, it’s something that will have an impact on how we process our collective trauma in the future. “The thing about memory is, it’s never just about what happened. It’s ‘How does what happened matter to us in the present?’” Schoch-Spana says. “We are the survivors, so we get to pick and choose the story we want to tell.”