The Long View

What Will We Tell Our Grandkids About The Last Two Years?

A medical anthropologist and mom takes stock of the effects of the pandemic, years from now.

by Emily Mendenhall
A naked baby wearing male boots and carrying a woman sitting in a mask in front of the TV representi...
It's Me, Mom

I will never again be OK with a close-talker. Fifty years from now, when my hair is gray and my wrinkles deepen to frame my face, I imagine backing away from whispers, clamping up in crowds, and wiping down my hands and face after a close huddle.

My Nana was always jumpy. She told countless stories about coming of age in London, watching for bombs near her home in Parliament Fields during World War II. Her mother panicked when she and her twin sister missed curfew. She said she hated big government because their food was so carefully rationed. Nana saved eggs for weeks to put in her wedding cake. I can recall the sirens and nerves from her stories so clearly.

What stories will we tell our grandchildren? How will the pandemic look to us in 10, 20, 30 years, or more? How will the pandemic period affect how we relate to each other in the future?

When your parents were young, we quarantined for months, I’ll tell my grandchildren. The fear of the virus was all around us. Grandpa put on his N95 and rubber gloves he used for woodworking to pick up milk, eggs, and flour from empty supermarket shelves at 7 a.m. We nurtured our bread starters. We drank wine for lunch.

These months switched to years. We languished.

As a professor who taught online for 18 months, I balanced lectures on global health politics with first grade reading lessons. My 4-year-old called me “Professor McGonagall” because she imagined our house was an extension of Hogwarts as we worked our way through the first four volumes. I was a shoddy playmate but I remember those times on the floor so clearly. They were magical and stressful, ephemeral and unending.

Some people will remember quarantine as captivity, and tremble at memories of feeling unsafe. Domestic violence surged due to economic strife and lockdowns. Suicides stagnated nationally but disproportionately rose among young people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and lower incomes. Of course, who was affected by the pandemic, how, and where represented our deeply unequal economic and social system in America.

Many people will carry the stress and trauma of this time with them into their old age. Bessel van der Kolk’s well-known book The Body Keeps Score describes how we carry these emotional scars with us for a lifetime. As a medical anthropologist, I have listened to hundreds of people describe how traumatic moments like these become lodged in our memories and expressed in our bodies. “The pandemic has had a major impact on the mental health of individuals, families, and entire populations,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, a Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University, tells me. “The daily challenges, the uncertainty, fear, anxiety, grief, stress, and isolation linked to the pandemic have been overwhelming for many people,” she adds. “We have seen a record number of people who fit the diagnosis of anxiety or depression, higher than before the pandemic. That is particularly true of adolescents and young people. We have seen skyrocketing levels of substance use disorders, compared to the time before the pandemic. The mental health effects of this pandemic are immediate and acute, but we will also continue to feel them, individually and on a population level, for years to come.”

In Disrupted Lives, anthropologist Gay Becker shows how moments of disruption or “a period of limbo, and a period of life reorganization” shifts identities and reorders how people see themselves in the world. In the last few years, some people woke up from dead-end jobs or abusive relationships and left them. Others realized their calling as painters, cocktail makers, or stay-at-home moms. Those who had choices to transform their lives did — some finding agency for the first time. Others were forced to take risky jobs to protect the ones they loved most. Still others reconstituted who they were in the world after they lost loved ones to COVID-19, partners to divorce, or work to the pandemic economy.

We will mark time by and through the virus. We’ve even changed our long-held daily routines as a result. We’ve discovered new ways of acting in our homes, with our loved ones, and in our spaces that we create that will last long beyond the pandemic.

The marking of time by the pandemic, however, was not a collective experience. Red states and blue states opened up at different times. As one woman I spoke to in northwest Iowa said, “I choose mental health over COVID.” Like it was a choice. Many states where pandemic policies exclusively honed the conservative approach of personal responsibility experienced these moments as ordinary days. This may be one of the greatest challenges of reimagining unity in America. What was your pandemic experience?

Our conceptualizations of living and dying in America have been radically challenged — particularly while people grappled for the soul of America through convergent climate, racial, and health politics — and we have been collectively transformed. We’ll not only talk about these divided states of America for several decades, but I suspect we’ll also feel the mistrust of this time for generations.

I doodled a poem in my journal in the middle of the pandemic, when I was conducting research about COVID denialism in my hometown in northwest Iowa. I laid my head on my pillow late at night, after reading Dr. Seuss. With his prose in my head I tried to make sense of our vastly divided states. “One state, Two States, Red States, Blue States.” Nothing else was making sense about how people were so resistant to protecting each other, so I went on. “Black states, Blue States, Old States, New States.” Everyone thought they deserved to set their own policy on their own terms. “This one has a little car. This one has a little star!” It was increasingly clear that no federal policy was on the horizon. “Say! What a lot of COVID policies there are!”

Thing is, we had a pandemic policy playbook, we just ignored it. Those of us in public health will tell our students how everyone who could do a little bit of math considered themselves an epidemiologist. How COVID cracked open the misperception that our health system was state-of-the-art, crumbling in the face of a fiery ball of a virus. These pandemic moments also made visible deep fissures of white supremacy that have framed who can achieve good health and healthcare in America.

These divisions were clear in the Pandemic Journaling Project. As soon as quarantine enveloped American cultures, medical anthropologists Sarah Willen and Kate Mason created a space for people to write it down. When they ask people to reflect on how this time will be remembered in the future, answers vary a lot — except on two points. “Pretty much everyone says we’ll be affected for years, if not generations to come. And folks agree that there’s value in telling our stories now, and saving them so people in the future can understand what this was like.”

Marking time with and through the virus will be central to the stories we remember for our grandchildren. How those stories transform with time — as a pause, a trauma, or national struggle for the soul of our nation — will be reconstructed with time. We’ll remember the sourdough starters, the Zoom gatherings, the uncertainty. We’ll feel the responsibilities we carried deep within the pits of our being, caring for children, neighbors, ourselves. Our bodies will remember these moments, letting go as we reconstruct a post-pandemic norm. But chipping away at our divisions starts at home as we think about who we are, how we support each other, and what 2022 and beyond should and can become.

Emily Mendenhall is a medical anthropologist and Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Her new book UNMASKED: COVID, Community, and the Case of Okoboji, will be released March 16, 2022.