Being Human during COVID

by Briana Johnson on November 29, 2021

This is a guest post from Kristin Ann Hass, editor of Being Human during COVID, from the University of Michigan Press. This volume is available for purchase in paperback and open access reading — made possible by the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory.


Did the headlines this weekend about the Omicron variant suck a little of the joy out of your holiday? Did it bring back all too familiar waves of worry? It is one thing to know that variants will be popping up and circulating for some time to come – and it is another to live through it again.

One year ago, COVID cases were climbing, the presidential election was both decided and violently contested, schools that had opened were shutting down again, businesses that had struggled to hang on were closing again. We were in the middle of something we were running out of adjectives to describe.

People joked that it was going to take all of 2021 to recover from 2020. In fact, we are going to be recovering from and thinking about and studying the year 2020 for a very long time to come. There simply weren’t enough days in 2021 for us to recover. And that is why Being Human during COVID is such a great read. It takes you on a vivid and deep dive into a particularly fraught and intense historical moment, and its contributors draw on a remarkably wide range of expertise to reflect on that moment, its precedents, and its future.

Being Human during COVID is a collection of essays written by scholars in the humanities about how they experienced that first intense wave of life with COVID and what their knowledge as scholars and their various forms of expertise enabled them to see at that time. The essays in this volume capture the drama and the heartbreak of that moment; they put the wide range of the churning events in deep context.

The book is divided into six thematic sections that reflect, themselves, a bit of the experience. They are Naming, Waiting, Grieving, More Waiting/Sheltering, Resisting, and Not Waiting.

This volume doesn’t seek to offer a totalizing vision of being human during COVID-19; instead, we give readers a hint of the painful, complicated, fascinating experiences—of the naming and waiting and grieving and resisting and the not waiting — as we are making sense of them from our positions as scholars and eyewitnesses.

The four photo essays in the book, “Facing our Pandemic,” “Living on Loss of Privileges: What We Learned in Prison,” “Social Distances in Between,” and “Soliloquous Solipsism: An Attempt to Put Words to a Loss of Words,” give a powerful sense of what it offers. “Facing our Pandemic” shows us images of faces marked by masks and fatigue, and fear. It also shows us images of health care workers whose faces were hidden by masks who taped photographs of themselves to their scrubs so that the patients could see them, could know who was caring for them.  It also shows us images of George Floyd projected onto a Confederate statue.  All these images are arresting, and they capture a profound sense of how the pandemic required us to see each other and ourselves in new ways. “Living on Loss of Privileges: What We Learned in Prison” turns to the expertise of formerly incarcerated contributors to help us to think about what it means to be “locked down” and how we might care for ourselves in that new context. “Social Distances in Between” is an excerpt from a COVID diary that brings us along as social distances are transformed and refigured along with the author’s neighborhood — where tidy streets are suddenly dotted with “Black Lives Matter” and “Thank You Health Care Workers” signs. Finally, “Soliloquous Solipsism: An Attempt to Put Words to a Loss of Words” offers a series of self-portraits of a woman so at a loss for words to describe the experience of the moment that she turns to her camera and her body to try to capture the pain and the disorientation of the moment.

Other essays in the collection turn to monster stories to give us tools to respond to real threats in the world; walk us through a mediation on time and how our experience of COVID might help us to understand it in new ways; invite us into private zoom prayer meetings to introduce us to the saints of pandemics; take up histories of prejudice to help us to see COVID through an Asian American lens; bring us along as witnesses to COVID’s attack on women and a series of inspiring feminist responses; ask us to image how we might collect evidence of this moment for future historians; and more.

All of which is to say that as we continue to work to recover from, to come to terms with, to reorient ourselves, in the wake of 2020, Being Human during COVID is going to be an invaluable tool — or maybe companion. What happened? Who are we now? How have we changed? We are going to be thinking through these questions for a very long time. In ways that we did not anticipate when we started work on this project, Being Human during COVID is going to be a touchstone for thinking about these questions going forward.

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