A diary is by its very nature an intensely personal thing. It's a place to record our most intimate thoughts and worries about the world around us. In other words, it is a glimpse at our state of mind.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic, and the impact of the lockdown, have left many people isolated and scared about what the future might bring. As a sociologist, I was keen to hear how people were experiencing this totally new way of life. So in early March I began the CoronaDiaries - a sociological study which aimed to highlight the real voices and the everyday experiences of the pandemic by collecting the accounts of people up and down the UK, before, during and after the crisis.
From the frontline health worker concerned about PPE and exposure to COVID-19, to the furloughed engineer worried about his mental health, these are the voices of the pandemic. Entries take a variety of forms, such as handwritten or word-processed diaries, blogs, social media posts, photos, videos, memes and other submissions like songs, poems, shopping lists, dream logs and artwork. So far, the study has recruited 164 participants, from 12 countries, aged between 11 and 87. These people come from a range of backgrounds.
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When I began this project in March, I did not expect the study to prove so popular. I have been studying and working as a sociologist for nearly 20 years and most of my research so far has looked at how young men experience education, gender roles and social inequality.
Like many of us, I was wondering how I could be of use at this time, do my bit in the crisis and make the most of my skills. As the weeks have gone by and more and more people have signed up, I've realised this project isn't just a research study to understand how society is being made and remade - it is also providing hope and acting as a cathartic coping tool for people. While some of the documents have made me cry, especially those from already vulnerable people, others have made me laugh and have been a joy to read. I feel as though I am on a journey with the participants as we move through the crisis.
Reading the entries, what becomes clear as the lockdown is eased is that this pandemic has been - and will continue to be - experienced in very different ways across society. For some, the crisis has been an opportunity, but for others, who are already in a disadvantaged position, it is a very frightening experience.
March - first days
The frontline health worker
Emma is in her late 30s, and a frontline health worker in a rural location in Wales. Like many key workers, Emma is also juggling family life and caring responsibilities. In a diary entry written in mid-march, Emma foresaw issues with PPE in the NHS.
Emma said the equipment "magically turned up" after the doctors took this stand but said the sight of them all in surgical gowns, helmets and visors "did verge on the ridiculous". She added:
The worried mum
Beth, 35, is a mother of two young children who lives in a busy city. In the early days of the crisis, she hid her fears from her children. Here is a snapshot from her written diary:
Audrey, 21, goes to a university in Birmingham and is in the final months of her degree. The rupture of "normal" student life became clear when the full scale of the lockdown came into force, causing her housemates to leave their shared house.
Audrey went on to write how some of her fellow students set up a food bank in one of the student accommodations near her and that she is determined help where she can. But despite her altruistic efforts, the lockdown was still taking its toll.
April - settling in
Eva is a self-employed cleaner, in her mid 50s, who lives in South Wales with her husband, John, who works in a factory making hand sanitiser. As the lockdown entered its second month, she reflected on her relationship with the woman who worked for her and how differently the pandemic was effecting them both.
Sophia is a teacher in her 40s and based in the south of England. She is trying to home school her children during the lockdown and being a parent and a teacher is proving challenging.
The civil servant
Sarah is a civil servant in her mid-60s working in a pivotal role for HM Revenue and Customs. She used her diary to document the rapid changes which have taken place in her organisation since the lockdown and how working from home was becoming "normal" from March 23.
The furloughed engineer
Lucas, a man in his late 30s from Northern Ireland, is finding the pandemic difficult on multiple levels. It's a trigger for his mental health, but also it is a reminder of past troubles.
Lucas writes about how he stopped watching the news because in an attempt to "avoid anxiety". He adds:
Jack, 72, is a retired academic who used his diary to comment on societal problems. One of which is the narrative of what the "new normal" is and how society is being remade.
May - Looking forward
Daniel, a man in his mid-20s, had just started a new relationship in February with a woman he met while bell-ringing at a church in the Midlands. However, both he and his girlfriend live apart and have not seen each other since the lockdown began. Over the past few months, Daniel has found this a challenge, but has documented how their relationship has been maintained virtually and through the help of keeping a diary.
This is just a glimpse of the stories that have been gathered by the CoronaDiaries project, but already patterns are emerging. While this crisis is undoubtedly impacting on people across the globe, what is clear from these accounts is that there are multiple crises across everyday life - for the young, the old, for mothers and for fathers and for those from different class, gender and ethnic backgrounds. These entries are able to highlight the multiple different lives behind the dreaded numbers we hear announced each day.
My diarists have been recording how they feel vulnerable and uncertain about their future - but there is also hope that things will not be like this forever.
The evidence which is being gathered here can play an important part in addressing the social, political and economic changes created by the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of analysis will foster global awareness of crucial issues that can help support specific public health responses to better control future outbreaks and to better prepare people for future problems. The study will run until September and all accounts will then be available to view in a free digital online archive.
All the names used in this piece have been changed at the request of the study participants.
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Author: Michael Ward - Senior Lecturer in Social Science, Swansea University