A few weeks ago, the BBC published an article discussing a study that claims the mental-health crisis resulting from the pandemic was ‘minimal’. In the hours that followed the BBC’s posting on Twitter, users began quote-tweeting it alongside the most troubling experiences they underwent during lockdowns, ridiculing the idea that these findings might be based in some truth. The tweet now stands with over 45,000 quote-tweets, carrying an ‘added context’ addendum flagging the fact that the study in question was not based on populations that were likely to have been adversely affected by the pandemic. “The review did not look at lower-income countries, or specifically focus on children, young people and those with existing problems, the groups most likely affected”, states the BBC reporter in the article. “Usually this kind of revisionism takes longer” observes one user in the thread of responses to the BBC, pointing out that it hasn’t been that long since we were isolated from one another, both witnessing and experiencing incredible forms of loss. With our rapid return to normalcy, are our memories of the pandemic changing shape?
“Not all memories are equally welcome in awareness”, say cognitive psychologists Anderson and Hanslmayr (2014). While most memory research treats the act of forgetting as largely involuntary, they propose that the concept of ‘motivated forgetting’ must not be left out of the discourse. These motivators could be anything from needing to preserve a pleasant emotional state and concentrating on a task at hand, to protecting ourselves from trauma. It’s only human, then, for us to limit the time we spend recalling the crisis that was the pandemic. On the other hand, however, it is these negative memories that are especially hard to expunge. As cruel as it may seem, this carries adaptive value – our brains learn from difficult and challenging situations, and store this information should the experience recur (Gravitz 2016).
The pandemic hasn’t been memorialised yet; we haven’t seen it represented in museums, books and film the way other historic events have, and understandably so. These cultural cues determine how our collective memory of it will live on, or fade away (Sima, 2023).
But, perhaps, these thousands of quote-tweets are a repository of (collective) experience; with each response essentially saying “Here is how I remember a difficult time in history”.
Our sense of time itself underwent different degrees of distortion during and after the pandemic. Time, here, refers to psychological time i.e. our subjective experiences of the passage of time, as opposed to its measured speed and duration. During quarantine, many people lost their usual temporal markers (events they attended, people they saw at specific times etc.), and reported feeling as though they had lost the notion of time itself. Added to this was something that characterised the majority of 2020: our waiting-time was unpredictable. The anxiety associated with this not-knowing was an important factor in how people’s sense of time was disturbed.
These are all comparative assessments of time – we knew what life looked like before, and we were learning what life looked like during. With what life looks like now, retrospectively, do people feel distanced enough from the pandemic for its impact to be deemed minimal, or are they still reeling from its effects? The answer to that, and the primary issue that is being taken with the BBC article, lies in the identities of the people in question.
The samples for most studies on psychology and behaviour come from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) populations. These standard subjects, while making up approximately 80% of study participants, form only around 12% of the world’s population. This is unrepresentative sampling in its most basic form, and yet it dominates the scientific discourse on how people feel, think and behave.
With regards to COVID, it was the young, lesser educated, migrant workers, ethnic/racial minorities, low-wage employed who were higher at risk both in terms of exposure to the virus (as they primarily worked occupations where remote-work was not possible) as well as job-loss. To then chronicle the impact of the pandemic, whether in terms of mental-health or otherwise, based on 137 studies primarily from high-income European and Asian countries is harmful.
The majority of the world’s population is not WEIRD, and not everyone has the privilege of forgetting. Our experience of time and consolidation of memories are varied and diverse, and most importantly, form the bulk of a shared experience that should not go unrepresented.
Written by Ananya Damodaran, Researcher at LagomWorks. Contact email@example.com for any queries on this article.