Collections of oral history interviews, journal entries, and online collections of memories

Some people sewed fabric facemasks at the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, other people helped the infected, or distributed food to elderly citizens. To be helpful to others was the “motto of the day”. However, how to be helpful and use your professional expertise at the same time? As oral historians, we decided with no delay or doubts. We would use our qualitative research skills and focus on subjectivity during the “coronacrisis”.

We cooperated mainly with students and graduates of the Master´s study program in Oral History – Contemporary History at the Faculty of Humanities, Charles University, where many of our colleagues from the Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences teach. We came up – at the beginning rather intuitively – with three phases of data collection depending on the distancing measures. In 2022, thanks to the financial support, we added new methods for capturing individual experiences and broadened the groups of interviewees.

Phase 1: Journals

First, we asked students to confide their subjective memories in their journals. Volunteers (there were thirty of them at first) wrote a daily journal of their experiences during the public health emergency declaration that responded to the health threats caused by COVID-19 escalation (from 13 March to its anticipated end on 17 May 2020). The participants also reflected on the role of media and politicians (at the regional and state levels). We asked the volunteers twice to continue writing the journals (after the second public health emergency declaration). About half of the original participants wrote the journal during the second wave of COVID-19, and ten students and colleagues provided the journals from all three waves of COVID-19.

I swear blind that everything will change from now on. I become productive. I will read tons of critical theory, exercise regularly, and learn French. I will be a better person after the quarantine ends. I can hear the ambulances all the time; the world is shut down. Will this ever change? (Journal entry, from 20 March 2020).

Phase 2: Photographs of daily life in the COVID-19 era

Obtaining the journals did not require any social interaction or connection from the researchers. But when the COVID-19 pandemic started improving and people started spending more time outside their homes (albeit usually alone or only with their families), we asked our students and alumni (almost three hundred people in total) on 22 April 2020 to send us photographs from their everyday lives in COVID-19 pandemic. Our colleagues sent us photographs of empty towns and villages, people sewing facemasks, queues in front of haberdasheries, and fewer “documentary” photographs displaying their feelings and moods. Some participants keep sending us these pictures without any further requests.

Phase 3: Interviews across the professions and generations (2020-2022)

After the successful response to the photo challenge, the key oral history task was ahead of us: the interviews. One day later, on 23 April 2020, we contacted again almost three hundred, aforementioned people and asked them to record an interview with someone close to them during the public health emergency declaration. We did this when the people were allowed to gather with family members so there was no risk involved for the interviewers and the interviewees to meet and record the interview if they took all precautions.

We asked 271 students and graduates, who were previously trained and  did not need any training and had skills to find and contact interviewees, explain the project aim, conduct the interview, analyse, and interpret the interview. There were no requirements for interviewees (no age, gender, location, or occupational requirements). We wanted to cover several topics; they included in general: personal experiences during the pandemic, assessments of the situation, personal feelings, and the possible impacts on family and working life. We were able to find thirty interviewers (19 graduates, 10 students, and 1 teacher). There were so many of them possibly because the group of potential interviewees was very broadly defined.  These interviewers eventually conducted interviews with 67 female and male interviewees between April and May 2020 and exceptionally in June 2020

I was lucky enough to have a dog, so I could get out, so we walked a lot. Where I live, everyone took all precautions, so there was hardly anybody outside. This was good. Well, I completely cleaned the whole apartment. (Laughs). Sure, I read some books, watched some movies, and relaxed. Anyway, I have been working in pubs since I was 15. I am a person, who is not really used to sitting on my arse. So I have really just done things that I didn’t have time to do as I’ve always said – I would do this sometime and I would read this sometime and there was no time to do it now. Therefore, I managed to do all these things during the coronavirus crisis. (Oral history interview, 8 May 2020).

The epidemiological situation started to worsen again in the late summer of 2020. After the public health emergency was declared on 5 October 2020, we immediately asked our interviewers to conduct the second round of interviews with the same interviewees. About half of the interviewers from the first round of interviews participated in the second round. We did not contact the students and graduates who decided not to participate in the first phase. We did not want to bother them with “unsolicited emails” and we assumed that they would contact us if they were interested. Above all, it was clear that the situation was starting to change. The initial energy and enthusiasm for the oral-history project slowly evaporated and was replaced with fatigue as the COVID-19 infections increased.

This organically developed project differs from our previous projects because the interviewers faced the same specific, unknown situation as the interviewees: online meetings, or more precisely the interview arrangements, were far more difficult to organise. For this reason, we decided to ask the interviewers to become interviewees for the third (and for now final) round of the interviews. The interviews were conducted in the spring of 2020 and we asked the interviews / former interviewers why they decided to participate in the project, about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what oral history experiences they got during this project.

Phase 4: Online collection of memories

With the start of the new interdisciplinary project “Research of post (covid) era”; funded by the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS, we decided to add one more source: retrospective online memories when everyone can contribute to the collection by filing in the anonymous online form on this website in the section “Insert memory”.

As I got slowly stronger (after my recovery from COVID-19), I got my appetite back. I have to eat as much as I can now because I might lose my appetite again and I would not enjoy my food. So I stuff myself, I even ate the whole tub of ice cream (Online memory, 22 January 2022)

Phase 5: Interviews with national and local opinion makers (2022-2023)

Living through such an extraordinary historical event, we decided that it is essential for the project outcomes to conduct oral history interviews with those who made political and healthcare decisions that had been influencing the Czech society for more than two years. Therefore, in late 2022, we have started to conduct interviews with top politicians (former ministers of health and their deputies) and with experts from the natural sciences institutes of the Czech Academy of Sciences, public health officers, doctors, epidemiologists, virologists, and leading figures of the Czech Medical Chamber. At the same time, we wanted to interview opponents of the COVID-19 containment measures (lockdowns, vaccination, mandatory mask policy) who publicly spoke against them (doctors, artists, members of affected jobs groups such as publicans) and thus intentionally or unintentionally influenced the public opinion on the pandemic.

The first negative reaction from members of the public was when we announced that the pandemic could last up to two years and there would be a travel ban during this period. People could not imagine that something could last that long. I kept saying, based on the spread of the coronavirus, that it could not disappear that fast and that the logical conclusion was that it had to last longer. The second huge negative reaction and I did not expect it at all, I did not think that it might excite such strong feelings, were the words “establishment of herd immunity” that it was necessary for society to achieve it. (Oral History Interview 20 December 2022).

If you have any questions or suggestions about this project or are doing similar research in your country, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Miroslav Vaněk, Jana Wohlmuth Markupová