The words, “These are unprecedented times” are ones you probably never imagined you would hear so often. It has become a cliché during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still holds weight in its truth. The coronavirus has implications that flow into everyone’s lives in unique and complex ways. It is so important that we share our experience navigating the landscapes of education, family, friendships, and citizenhood as they are rapidly evolving against the backdrop of this global pandemic. These narrations of experience will allow better communication in a time of necessary separation while providing valuable perspectives from these unprecedented times. Emma is one example of a life affected by the current pandemic who has been called to become a witness. She is a sophomore at the College of Charleston studying biochemistry. Emma has experienced the stress of online learning, the worry of protecting immunocompromised family members, and the emotional fatigue of isolation. Emma’s story is one of becoming a witness to her own life amidst the pandemic and bearing witness to the experiences of others.
Emma has not contracted the coronavirus. She has not lived with anyone suffering from it, but COVID-19 has still managed to affect nearly every aspect of her life. Frank explains, “Survival does not include any particular responsibility other than continuing to survive. Becoming a witness assumes a responsibility for telling what happened. The witness offers testimony to a truth that is generally unrecognized or suppressed. People who tell stories of illness are witnesses, turning illness into moral responsibility,” (Frank 272). In this definition, Emma becomes an essential witness to her own life. She has taken ownership in her experience to tell it herself. Her moral dedication to the safety and health of others is obvious. She explains her obligation and expectations, “It feels strange because some people legitimately don’t understand, and you can’t blame them for that. If I have to explain it to somebody, then that’s fine, but after I have told you, I expect you to at least somewhat understand…and respect the decisions that I have to make in terms of the protection of my family,”(COVID-19 Interview). Her story has the chance to unite individuals under shared hardship and bring together those who are struggling to find common ground.
There is a specific benefit to consider in telling and listening to the narratives of COVID-19 before the height of the pandemic has ended. Frank recognizes, “The postmodern affinity for testimony is one response—and often a frustrated one—to the accumulated chaos stories. Thus, testimony, for all its commitment to truth and its ability to break through the limits of what its times attend to, is itself another construction of its times,” (Frank 273). Through this lens, it is possible to understand that a story about a time, told during that time, makes it a unique work of perspective and intricacies that would be otherwise lost to retrospection. Frank goes on to continue highlighting the importance of these narratives, “But to observe that testimony is incomplete and only possible at a particular cultural moment in no way diminishes the force of that testimony,” (Frank 273). The inability to add a definitive ending to these narratives in no way lessens their power. Emma remarks, “I will always wear a mask out in public, until this gets lifted and we know my mom is no longer at risk,” (COVID-19 Interview). In statements like this, it becomes obvious how little we know for sure. It brings a vulnerability to the forefront. In present times, individuals can share in the unknown of the future, and in the future, individuals will be able to recognize the vast unknown we faced.
The testimony of one’s own life is irrevocably tied to the witness telling it. As Frank describes it, “Illness stories are told by bodies that are themselves the living testimony; the proof of this testimony; is that witnesses are what they testify,” (Frank 278). It is a mark upon the story that cannot be removed because it is at once part of the story itself. This brings external factors that the witness experiences within society into their testimony. For Emma, her age and socioeconomic status caused her to have to adjust to the difficulty of online learning while majoring in a difficult field of study. Emma speculates, “I guess that’s probably the biggest thing for me, trying to learn complicated courses for chemistry online is not ideal,” (COVID-19 Interview). Her socioeconomic status also played another role in her experiences. Emma also had to deal with the burden of her hastily packed belongings taking up space in her home. These boxes quickly became a source of anxiety for her, “So, I had boxes and totes sitting around the house, which is a trip factor for my mom. So I am always thinking about that in the forefront of my mind. You have to listen and if you hear a slam, you yell and see if they’re fine or jump up and run. So, sometimes I would miss portions of classes,” (COVID-19 Interview). It can also be said, “Testimony is distinct from other reports because it does not simply affect those who receive it; testimony implicates others in what they witness. This reciprocity of witnessing requires not one communicative body but a relationship of communicative bodies,” (Frank 282). This created a relationship between teller and story, as well as between the teller and those involved in the story. Frank clarifies, “In its testimony the communicative body calls others into a dyadic relationship,” (Frank 283). In telling a testimony, you permanently add other individuals to your perception of your own experiences. These connections add to the expansive nature of testimony. Perhaps the most important consequence of this is the community created by the sharing. Frank highlights, “The chance that testimony…calls for is not some reorganization of ‘service delivery’ or enhanced ‘communication skills’ among physicians. The issue of nothing less than changing the cultural milieu so that people…are seen for what their bodies testify to. The demand of her testimony is for other bodies to commune with her in her pain, because only through her pain has she learned what really matters,” (Frank 286). This is the greatest benefit of being a witness to your story and to others. The relationships created blossom into a community that has the opportunity to share in the knowledge of the narrative as its unique collection of individuals and experiences.
In times such as these, it is easy succumb to isolation and separation. If we begin or continue to bear witness to our own testimonies and to others’, then we will create and maintain a community of shared experiences. These narratives shared amongst these communities will be vital in creating unity. The stories we tell, and share will serve as the legacy of these unprecedented times and will be irrevocably connected to us.
“COVID-19 Narrative.” Interview by Haylee R. Rikard. Medical Humanities Blog. November
Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller. Second ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
 A pseudonym is used to protect the privacy of the interviewee.