Medical Geography Pandemic Time Capsule


This Covid-19 pandemic time capsule is the result of the collective labor of students in GEOG-256, Medical Geography, in Spring 2020. It is our small effort to make sense of this challenging and disorienting time.

Since medical geographers study, among other things, the emergence and spatial diffusion of infectious diseases, this pandemic did not exactly catch us by surprise. Indeed, from the first day of class (January 24, 2020), we tracked the progress of the novel coronavirus epidemic, through media reports, scientific papers, and online epidemiological mapping and modeling tools. Initially, I viewed the epidemic as a serendipitous illustration of the concepts I taught in the course; I had used previous internationally relevant epidemics—of Zika virus in South America in 2016, Ebola in West Africa in 2014, H1N1 flu in 2009—for similar pedagogical purposes. But nothing prepared me for how the pandemic would transform our lives so dramatically.

As the semester went on, our interest turned to concern, and then dismay, as Covid-19 spread across the world and the first US cases were reported in the state of Washington. Even two weeks before Spring Break, we were still mostly in denial that the pandemic would impact our lives at Macalester in any significant way. I was looking forward to a long-planned trip to Spain with my wife during the break; many of us had interesting and exciting plans. Then quite suddenly, between March 9 and March 16, everything changed, with the closure in Minnesota of all non-essential businesses, a near-total interruption of international travel, and the unprecedented decision of most US schools, from kindergartens to universities, to move to remote, online instruction.

Surveying this new reality, I decided to try to make the best of a bad situation. I scrapped our usual research paper assignment and, with the indispensable help of my teaching assistant, Laurel Kriesel-Bigler, set this pandemic time capsule project in motion. Soon after, we joined our class project to the College Library's larger effort to document Macalester's experience of the pandemic, an initiative led by Ellen Holt-Werle, the head of the College Archives.

Here is how we built our "time capsule." Starting at the end of March, students in the class began to write a journal of their daily experiences. Most students found themselves back home, as far away as Bangalore, India, and from Kirkland, Washington to Orono, Maine and everywhere in between, under varying conditions of quarantine or "lockdown." In mid-April, students shared their first round of journaling with me. As a geographer, I was impressed by the diversity of experience based on location; ironically, the closing of campus, which led to our dispersal, has sharpened our understanding of the relevance of place in the experience of the pandemic.

As I read the journals, I also tried to pull out some major emergent themes, some commonalities among diverse subjective experiences. After I introduced the seven major themes, the students sorted themselves into groups, each one exploring a theme in greater depth and detail, drawing from their own journals and the experiences of others in the class. Each group wrote a short essay, and together these essays serve as the core of our pandemic time capsule. Along the way, we also picked up visual and multimedia artifacts for the archive—not only items we observed directly, right around us, but also memes, photos, videos, and other items from social media and traditional media. Our engagement with the media has been a crucial aspect of the experience of the pandemic, since it is impossible to appreciate or comprehend a global-scale phenomenon without it.

I am proud of my students for coming together, so quickly and at a distance, with very little direction on my part, to produce such an interesting piece of work. What you read here is a snapshot in time, the experiences of just a handful of students who attend a small, Midwestern liberal arts college. You'll find that some of our most mundane experiences are emblematic of a new reality: meeting on Zoom, wearing protective masks, searching high and low for baker's yeast, falling for Dr. Fauci, binge-watching "The Last Dance" or "Tiger King," waiting anxiously to see if we've "flattened the curve"—these are all things we could have barely contemplated three months ago. This, for us, is "Covid life." 

For the most part, we have been lucky so far to have been spared the worst of this pandemic. So we leave this record of our experience, as we leave the Spring 2020 semester behind us. And we look forward to emerging from lockdown, gathering once again, and, perhaps, seeing one another, and our world, in a whole new light.

—Eric Carter, St. Paul, Minnesota, May 8, 2020