As collective memory fades, so will our ability to prepare for the next pandemic
contributed AP

As collective memory fades, so will our ability to prepare for the next pandemic

  • 0

(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)

Sean Donahue, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

(THE CONVERSATION) Just below the Japanese village of Aneyoshi, there’s a stone carved with a warning: “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

Placed there after a tsunami devastated the area in 1933, it helped those who listened to it remain safe from a similar disaster in 2011, almost 80 years later.

When the last wave of the coronavirus recedes, what kind of guide stone will exist for future generations?

This question is not just about recording history for history’s sake. As a political philosopher, I see it addressing an ancient problem of my field: how to ensure societies remain stable over time. Tangible reminders – anything from stone tablets to digital artifacts storing information about an event – help sustain collective memory of risk.

However, the global scope and relative infrequency of pandemics like the coronavirus make them especially challenging to collectively remember.

Burdens of bias

An unprecedented effort is underway to fill vast digital archives with information related to the pandemic. Researchers at the University of Arizona, for example, have started a project called A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of Covid-19 that invites the public to contribute everything from personal videos to Instagram posts and internet memes about life during the coronavirus.

But simply storing information in a repository isn’t enough; people will neither be able to access nor interpret it without the proper social and technological infrastructure.

For a reminder to be truly effective, huge swaths of the population must recognize the risk and be able to adequately prepare.

Motivating people to achieve this latter aim is the biggest challenge. We are biased in many ways toward our personal experience, and we tend to underestimate or dismiss risks unless we encounter them firsthand.

Take the town of Eilenburg, Germany, which sits along the Mulde River. Residents had lived through many small floods, so they knew that water posed a hazard. They were nonetheless unprepared when, in 2002, a flood event of a kind that hits Europe about once every 100 years inundated the town. Because the smaller floods hadn’t been a big deal, they had a warped understanding of the true risk of a major flood. Many consequently doubted official warnings that the river was about to rise as high as it did. The same pattern of bias has been observed in other disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Challenges from this bias grow over time. All events eventually disappear from living memory – a process that takes about 90 years. Once this happens, later generations have fewer opportunities to have compelling conversations with eyewitnesses. These interactions are important motivators for taking the threat of recurrence seriously. The disappearance of vivid personal memories of polio, whooping cough and measles has plausibly contributed to the rise of anti-vaccination sentiment, in spite of the well-documented danger of these diseases.

Challenges from technology

Perhaps bias can be overcome to some extent through technology. Watching videos of life in quarantine or interviews of those impacted by the coronavirus is the closest that future generations can get to experiencing the pandemic firsthand or having conversations with those who did.

But video and other media ultimately don’t provide conversation – only monologue. There were videos of eyewitness testimony and prudent accounts from historians about the last comparable global pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu. And yet tangible reminders like these do not seem to have caused the public to form an accurate perception of risk.

Counterintuitively, technology can interfere with this effort. Digital media makes spreading misinformation easier. And the emergence of deep fakes suggests that there will be unforeseeable ways that people in the future might doubt convincing evidence about the coronavirus. In fact, many today continue to downplay the threat in spite of the high death toll or dismiss other realities of the pandemic as a hoax.

There remains a more basic problem. By enabling us to better preserve and spread information, technology has overloaded us with it. The amount of attention given to any topic is decreasing as the amount of information produced grows. A global pandemic might be at the forefront of everyone’s minds now. But can we assume that the reminders left behind will automatically get the attention they deserve from people living in an information saturated world?

The hope of institutions

In the long run, actively remembering the coronavirus cannot be everyone’s job; perhaps it’s best to depend on a relatively small number of people. They would, in effect, have to form a living guide stone with the power of warning the rest of the world when necessary.

Existing institutions don’t look like they’re up to this task. Universities broadly focus on creating new information and preparing students for the job market, not selectively spreading old warnings. Libraries are great at storing information but not at interpreting and communicating it to the public.

Government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization seemingly have the power to capture the public’s attention. Yet even well-intentioned agencies can become manipulated for other purposes. Among the reminders to keep alive is that these institutions must be guarded from corruption, and the prospect of defunding or reorganizing them cannot be taken lightly.

Meeting the challenges described above perhaps requires new institutions of memory that are resistant to corruption and that both the government and the public would be generally expected to consult. These institutions would have to provide a certificate of authenticity for the information they preserve by earning and keeping the public’s trust. Furthermore, those who maintain them would have to be experts at communicating these reminders in a way that grabs the public’s attention and overcomes bias.

One of the institutions that fulfills some of these criteria is the Museum of the City of Volos, in Greece. Originally built to house general information about the region – including facts about earthquakes and floods from the 1950s – the museum has recently increased its focus on promoting disaster risk awareness. It consulted with disaster preparedness experts and civil authorities to identify and reach at-risk groups, develop cultural memory games, and play a more visible role in the life of the city. Today, it serves as a case study in how institutions can help preserve collective memory about risk.

Future generations deserve to be in the best position possible to deal with the next inevitable pandemic. This preparation includes regular reminders about what happened in 2020.

[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/as-collective-memory-fades-so-will-our-ability-to-prepare-for-the-next-pandemic-137370.

The Conversation

This content was contributed by a user of the site. If you believe this content may be in violation of the terms of use, you may report it.

Concerned about COVID-19?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

In a tweet about violent protests in Minneapolis over the death of a black man in police custody, President Donald Trump thundered: "These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won't let that happen ... Any difficulty and we will assume control but when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Twitter, as part of its newfound vigilance about Trump's rants, appended a note ...

As a child, I grew up in abject poverty with our family being evicted often. A number of times I found myself in a poor African American neighborhoods or public housing. During those times, I was often the only white child in my class. I can say in total honesty, I was never happier as a child than when I was in those neighborhoods, housing projects or those classrooms. Ever. During the rare ...

Imagine if you killed somebody on your job, and all you got that day was fired. You go into work the next day, return the keycard you swipe every morning when you get on the elevator, pack the things from your desk, toss out whatever food you have in the pantry refrigerator and say goodbye to your co-workers before two security guards escort you out of the building. And, let's just say this ...

The news that Donald Trump will likely not preside over the traditional unveiling of his predecessors' official White House portraits is disappointing, but not exactly surprising. After all, Trump and Barack Obama do not like or respect each other. The prospect of having the Obamas and a bunch of their former administration officials back in the White House for an occasion on which Trump would ...

President Donald Trump and I have something in common: we both take the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. In my case, it's to treat the immune system disorders lupus and arthritis. In his case, it's to make some sort of point about how right he is to tout it as a miracle cure for COVID-19. On May 18, Trump proudly announced that he is taking the drug to stave off the coronavirus, ...

In mid-April, I received a message from the nursing home in Connecticut where my mother lives. When I called back, a doctor told me, "your mother has a fever." Those were words I'd been dreading and expecting. "We assume it's COVID," the doctor said. My 80-year-old mother was comfortable for the time being. Her fever wasn't very high and she was breathing okay. But the doctor said not to take ...

George Floyd died after a police officer pressed his knee on his neck until he stopped breathing, and riots have now erupted in cities across our nation. We can blame those police officers who participated in Floyd's murder, and we can blame those looters who have moved well beyond peaceful demonstrations. But real solutions to these problems require that we probe deeper as we try to ...

You have to hand it to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: He may have been lured into an unwinnable election-year fight with President Donald Trump, but at least he's still throwing punches. Shortly before 1 a.m. EDT Friday, Trump verbally barreled into the hot flaming mess on the ground in Minneapolis, where protests over the death of George Floyd had turned violent. A bystander's video shows an ...

Some years ago, I interviewed Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, former mayor of Atlanta and former congressman and ambassador to the United Nations - a wise and brave man. Something he said shocked me. He said: Atlanta is a city more easygoing and tolerant than most, a melting pot, an incubator of pluralism. But it could turn into a powder keg in a moment. If the wrong things happened in ...

This is how a thug acts. Twitter at long last has affixed fact-check links to a couple of tweets by President Donald Trump that include verifiably false details, in this case claims by the president that mail-in balloting leads to election fraud. Note that Twitter didn't remove the tweets, and hasn't gone so far as to add fact-check links to the president's baseless insinuations that MSNBC ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News