History has a reputation problem, wrote Dr. Thomas Peace on Active History. It is considered boring, stale and the domain of old white, frizzy-haired men. The very real gender and racial inequalities aside for now, History’s reputation problem seems to be on the mend in recent weeks.
Practically ever since the World Health Organization named COVID-19 a pandemic, I’ve seen newscasters and journalists warn that history will recount the rightness of [insert viewpoint here]. Perhaps you’ve read an article or heard someone say we should document everything we see, keep a diary or photo journal to record these historic times for future researchers?
As a historian, I value that advice to no end and repeat it here: keep a record of the events you witness, read about and feel around you day after day.
Also, as a historian, I believe that history is never simply what is past. The writing of history occurs in and is always shaped by the present. I for one will not be waiting until I am an old not-quite-white man, when this pandemic has long since passed, to write about a world under quarantine. Our writing is a reflection of the world around us and in writing we leave a record for future researchers that, through hindsight, will see far more than we can in this present moment.
Writing from a Toronto suburb, this as an account of what I have seen. I ask for critical reflection on the world we are perpetually in the process of creating and I beg contemplation as to how we wish to be remembered by future generations.
I implore for unity, love and compassion. The world is growing increasingly divisive, distrustful and cold. The media induced anxiety runs rampant as store shelves empty and people loot pharmacies, because the police are no longer responding to non-urgent calls. We have entered a state of emergency, even if some leaders still refuse to call it that.
Why toilet paper? A humorous meme in dark times.
Children are stuck at home, some too young to fully understand why. Parents are anxious and grandparents are isolated from families too afraid to pass on the virus to vulnerable loved ones. We rely on calls and video chat, but we do not feel the warmth of being in one room.
And then, of course, there are those spring-breakers running wild on beaches and partying the night away with the bloated confidence of youthful bravado. For many like me it is an infuriating sight to say the least.
Within days of social distancing, self-isolation and flattening the curve, these catchphrases for necessary actions have grown sour in the mouth. Governments telling us to stay at home and hide from the world are proving themselves more reactive than proactive, too concerned with big business and partisan politics than the rapid resolution of this crisis.
Trudeau in Canada is seemingly changing policy based on the questions he receives the previous day. Trump continues to spread fabrications in televised speeches and on twitter with all the ego of a bumbling buffoon. China may be sending people back to work amid the possibility of a resurgence, while Italy is on the brink of collapse with the highest death toll recorded to date. My Egypt is disinfecting streets seemingly devoid of pedestrians but leaving stores, malls and cafes operating 6AM to 7PM daily. The disjointed responses of governments and businesses are confusing, though comprehensible. Their accountants and economists calculate hourly developing market values and try to plan ahead for what happens when this storm passes.
With confirmed cases on the rise, doctors have become our celebrities and a source of comfort. Front line health professionals and critical workers keep us safe, and expose daily the disparities and social inequalities of the capitalist world system.
I’ve seen Copts from around the world, clergy and laity alike, on social media debating the Eucharist, changing their minds about daily letters, flip-flopping on church closures, or commanding those lowly sinners who call foul to repent before God’s divine punishment.
Of course, this too is comprehensible, and not at all unique to the Copts. A Church is a well-oiled machine at the best of times. Amid the present crisis, it falters as all corporations do to enact the kinds of rapid and immediate responses needed. Regardless of the faith or denomination, adherents look to their spiritual leaders for emotional comfort.
As churches around the world close and with Egypt finally following suit, we should not minimize the pandemic nor speak of fire and brimstone. Instead, we ought to be at the ready with love and hope. Be a comfort to one another. The Church is made glorious by its people. Did Jesus not say that where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in their midst? Set the buildings aside and become families and shepherds who unite despite the distance and a Church that casts aside dictums and political strife for the sake of its people. Display your empathy and kindness. Come together and direct messages of love and unity.
Dear friends, I beg of you: sow love, not dispute. We are all scared. Not because of any lack in faith. Rather, because amid this disarray we are perpetually in waiting for a directed message from the Church and world governments that is clear, compassionate and definitive.
The world is not ending, but at a time of tremendous physical isolation and emotional uncertainty it feels that way. My own experience through computer, TV and phone screens is one among millions. Ours is a merciful God and I pray that in this time of global pandemic we remain as ever a human and humane reflection of His divine personage.
There is no single voice, no one authoritative story. Temper your admonitions with empathy, your directives with love and your warnings with grace.
History’s reputation problem is on the mend and it’s time for each one of us to become a historian. Pick up a pen, camera, paint brush, laptop or audio recorder and document the world around you as you see it. Be critical, reflective and compassionate. Think of your work as a micro-history—a record of an individual, event or community—linked in a complex web of relations with your neighbors, friends and some distant person unknown to you. In time, these stories will grow, multiply and illustrate the developing paths of our interconnected history.
This is my story—far from finished. What’s yours?
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Michael Akladios is a doctoral candidate and course director in the Department of History at York University, Toronto. Founder and manager of the Coptic Canadian History Project, Michael’s research follows Coptic Christian migrants from post-colonial Egypt to Cold War Canada and the United States.