COVID-19 Project: Commentary on Resilience

By Donna Y. Cheung  |  

April 22, 2022

At a recent JACL-AZ event, a community member expressed frustration and tiredness with the opening focus of the newsletter on COVID-19. Accordingly, this view is shared by others. Thus, the COVID coverage should be de emphasized and placed at the back of the newsletter. Understandably, after more than two years of the pandemic, we are all tired. However, the callousness of the comment was alarming – not as a character flaw, but as a barometer of our collective and individual state of mental well-being. The individual and social desire to de-emphasize, to silence and eventually, to erase, the existence and reminders of the pandemic is a sign of eroding resilience. It’s an indication that the effects of trauma have set in. Yet, this impulse to look away – to deny – is also a short-term coping mechanism. Currently, even facts have become overwhelming. One million human beings in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. The scale of death is numbingly beyond comprehension. If we lay out all the bodies, how many football fields would that cover? Therefore, if we are to carry-on our lives, we must look away at times and momentarily forget. Otherwise, we fear paralysis. Sound familiar? Shikata ganai. It cannot be helped.

Still, I respectfully disagree. We can do better to help each other. As the last two years have demonstrated, we made use of adaptive practices to live fully while also reducing the risk of infection – outdoor gatherings, masks, cleaning hands and vaccinations. In so doing, we reject the false dichotomy of either acknowledging or ignoring COVID-19. However, if such adaptive strategies exist, then why is there still a need to forget? To be clear, this survival impulse of denial – to de-emphasize, to silence and to erase – is not unique to this COVID moment. Similar reactions have been documented during and after the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Likewise, for people who survived HIV in the early 1990’s, a time when HIV research was at its infancy, they chose not to focus on the grim. As one survivor had said to me, “Sometimes, denial is a good thing. Otherwise, I’d kill myself.” This statement suggests that denial or the impulse to forget is a way to cope with an immediate, untenable situation. However, when this impulse to forget gets writ large by society, that is, a collective pressure to de-emphasize and to silence in the long-term, then we risk isolating and alienating the individual from his/her experiences. And that’s dangerous for both the individual and the community. When pressure forms to enact collective amnesia, it is a sign of deep-seated psychic pain caused by trauma.

The COVID-19 Story Project creates a space for community members to share their experiences. In the process of sharing, we hope to alleviate some of your/our pain. At the same time, we hope the process of reading about the experiences of others will encourage you to start conversations with friends and family and to seek guidance from your pastor or sensei and/or a professional counselor. We knew this day would come because we have 80 years of stories on the experiences of Japanese American wartime incarceration and its aftermath – from trauma to an impulse to forget and then that gnawing impulse to speak and to remember and to teach. We can impart lessons and start the journey of healing only if you’re willing to speak and to share (in your own way). It’s the same with COVID-19.

For further reading: 

The 1918 Pandemic – the collective story versus the personal narrative 

The 1918 Pandemic—the collective story versus the personal narrative

Revisiting the Past: Interrogating the Unexplored History of the 1918 Pandemic

How Did This Many Deaths Become Normal? The U.S. is nearing 1 million recorded COVID-19 deaths without the social reckoning that such a tragedy should provoke. Why?

On the latest CDC recommendations: 

Adults: Boosters for 50 years and older

Children: Boosters for 5 years and older

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