Protest in the Pandemic 2

This session explored how a medical and economic crisis is also a crisis of narratives.

2 الاحتجاج في الجائحة

Emergency Narratives

The stories we tell often shape our reality in more ways than we can tangibly identify. Building on last sessions’ exploration of the different roots and manifestations of the pandemic, this session we positioned ourselves as an audience for the storytellers of the pandemic. Have you ever seen the same plot line being portrayed as a drama, a romantic comedy, a thriller and a documentary? Surely such art exists somewhere out there but for now our reality provides sufficient material for critique.

In the action category, we discussed the abundance of war metaphors and their potential impact. These include metaphors that identify a single enemy as the focal point of response; vilifying the virus or putting its face on a “bullet train”; signalling some kind of intrusion.  While many of us were taught “sticks and stones make break my bones” does that really apply to the words used in stories about the pandemic?

Arguably, one way that the dominant narratives about Covid-19 have been more than just words is their direct impact on accountability. While the virus itself can be seen as a “product of nature” the “pandemic” has been more than an outbreak; it is all of our structures reacting to the virus at once. Therefore, while we may be able to “blame” bats, pigs or birds for viruses (can we even though?), we cannot blame them for the unemployment, homelessness or inequality that become exacerbated by a health crisis. This led us to think about missing narratives as the answer to the questions about accountability seemed to be mostly absent from the type of metaphors that place nations and their people on one side fighting a virus on the other. In this way, many metaphors compensate, or attempt to compensate for government’s failure to take sufficient action.

It would be interesting to look at dominant narratives in countries that are responding more effectively to the pandemic and the needs of people compared to those who are falling behind. We also questioned who is pushing which narratives and to what extent they are at all representative of reality; finding that the discourse is often dominated by white male leaders. Numerous narratives are still missing while others continue to prevail; conversations about discrimination and indigenous communities are absent from narratives that suggest the virus affects everyone equally for example.

In our discussion we also considered how some metaphors can be double edged swords; on the one hand they can be reductive yet on the other hand they can describe in simple terms strategies that are actually being carried out and therefore increase the reach of information. In that sense we may place metaphors such as “flattening the curve” in the documentary category; more informative and less violent. Some metaphors also act as calls to action, warning us of disasters yet to come (hello climate change!) and highlighting the urgency of change.

The discussion about how we perceive the virus, the pandemic and the “current situation” inevitably turned into some introspection as we questioned narratives about ourselves and what it means to be human. The predominant positioning of humans as influencers over the environment is arguably a single story as we are in fact also part of the environment. Metaphors that depict humans as the virus in the context of radical environmentalism, thrilling as they may be, also invite us to reconsider the narratives we have chosen for ourselves.

Reflecting on the performative aspect of language inspired us to think about all the stories yet to be created, stories highlighting agency, regrouping and restructuring. Mores so we wondered about the possibility of actualizing those narratives that seem impossible. Can we too participate in assigning meaning to phrases such “the new normal”? If we are the stories we tell ourselves, then who do we want to be?