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Covid-19 and the yearning for a collective narrative

Brett Davidson | IRIS

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across three different reports observing that the course of the Covid-19 pandemic does not follow our expectations for how a story should play out. All three suggest that this narrative failure partly explains the difficulty in mounting a unified public response to the virus.  

In the first piece, Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic  explains that the trajectory of the pandemic does not fit any sort of storyline that we are used to: it’s way too long, the key elements of the Covid narrative are continually in dispute, the villain is an impersonal virus, and there are multiple false endings. A psychologist quoted by Pinsker refers to the impact of this as “narrative fatigue”: we—and Americans in particular—are accustomed to stories reflecting a clear battle between good and evil, where good triumphs in the end. We want a story that moves surefootedly from bad to good, and our constant, failed mental attempts to make the Covid pandemic fit this mold are wearing us out. 

Pinsker quotes a psychology professor who suggests we settle for a narrative framework that is more realistic. For example, the idea that there will always be adversity and we need to learn to manage it. Instead, in the absence of a satisfying communal narrative, people have focused on its meaning in their individual lives. Sometimes, they see it as an opportunity for personal insight and growth; more often, it’s seen as an interruption of their “real story,” which they can’t wait to get back to.

The second piece came from an episode of the podcast On the Media, and asked why so many Americans have stopped paying attention to the virus, even while cases continue to rise. One of the show’s segments focuses on the common shapes that popular stories take and that stand in stark contrast to the Covid story curve. Instead of following a clear arc with a beginning/turning point/end, the pandemic story zig-zags chaotically up and down, and up, and down. This mirrors the graphs of infections and deaths that we see in newspapers every day. It is not a story that would hold anyone’s attention for very long—it’s a meaningless jumble. 

This, the podcast argues, is precisely why it has been so difficult for health authorities to convey clear, compelling messages about how we should respond. Earlier in the pandemic, we expected a simple, clear storyline: the vaccine would act as a savior, swooping in to save the day and bring the story to a happy end. When this did not happen, our hopes were dashed and many people decided they were “done with Covid”—even though Covid was not done with us.  

Both the Atlantic article and the On the Media episode are well worth your time (and I highly recommend viewing this Kurt Vonnegut lecture on story shapes, referenced in the podcast). 

Then the third piece, by Frederick Kaufmann in The New York Times, really got me thinking. Kaufmann makes many of the same points about the pandemic evading our attempts to give it a familiar and satisfying narrative shape. However, he ends with the idea that Covid might offer us a new way of looking at things, in the way that Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein each transformed humanity’s narratives of our place in the universe. Kaufmann suggests that to gain this new understanding we should let go of the “hero’s journey,” “replacing it with a mosaic of collective valor, a human community assembled to withstand the ferocity of nature when it assumes its next epically violent form.”

Kaufmann’s proposition helped me articulate a niggling reaction I had to these pieces: that to look for a meaningful story in the shape of the pandemic is in a way to miss the point. Covid is not unique in its failure to give us a clear story arc and a neat and happy ending. More often than not, reality is relentless, chaotic, a seemingly meaningless jumble of ups and downs. It requires us to provide a narrative that gives events—particularly sad and tragic ones—shape and meaning. And we do this not by telling the story of the event, but by telling the story of us. We shape a narrative that reminds us who we are and affirms the values that guide our response. It energizes us and keeps us going. 

A key role of leaders is to help provide that narrative, to remind us of our collective character and identity, to give us hope and to call us to action. The best leaders are storytellers and shapers of narrative. And in the case of Covid, that leadership has been almost totally absent. This idea that we have been offered—that Covid is an awful but temporary interruption and that we should do certain things in hopes of getting back to “normal”: that is no narrative at all. Which story worth telling ever ended with things returning exactly to the way they were before?

Just like the Covid pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine promises to be relentless, too long, a struggle of ups and downs with no clear end. And yet Zelenskyy’s and others’ leadership has provided a narrative that has inspired the world. A narrative not about the war but about what Ukraine is and who the Ukrainians are. 

The struggle for Black lives in the US is another example. Structural racism is relentless, police killing after police killing providing blow after blow with no happy end in sight. But prominent leaders have mobilized people and forged that “mosaic of collective valor” by providing a narrative: not about racism, but about the value of people (Black Lives Matter!), the identity of the community, who we are as a nation and what we should aspire to be. In each case there is a set of values, and a vision of a better future that is just out of reach but that we can achieve by working together

The cause of our narrative fatigue is not Covid. It is a technocratic, calculated approach to health and crisis management. We call for “evidence-based policy” and we ask people to “follow the science.” But facts are cold and evidence is not a reason to act. So we end up left alone to figure out what to do, to shape our individual stories, mourn alone and grasp at our own private meaning while “getting back to normal” as quickly as possible. 

What we need instead is the space to mourn collectively, be angry together, learn to look after and look out for one another. There is healing in finding meaning together that we cannot get, each one of us alone. We desperately need leaders who can help us do that—to help us find our collective narrative.

Brett Davidson | IRIS

Brett is the Narrative Lead at International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a donor collaborative for philanthropy focused on strengthening civil society through narrative strategies and creative moving image storytelling for impact.

He is a narrative strategist with deep experience in health equity, with a particular interest in the role of storytelling, popular culture, and arts activism in bringing about social change.

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