Life in Quarantine: Witnessing the global pandemic

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When Stanford told students to pack up and go home in March, doctorate student Nelson Shuchmacher Endebo was on a plane home to Brazil. He had bought his ticket months before COVID-19 was a serious threat and was looking forward to seeing his parents and 91-year-old grandmother for the first time since starting his Ph.D. in the department of comparative literature. Not to mention, he was excited to meet his newborn niece. Although, traveling with the risk of catching the virus made him uneasy. 

“I already had this thing in my heart saying, ‘I don’t think you should go,’” Shuchmacher Endebo said. He ended up making the trip, his desire to see his family trumping his worries about traveling.

Two layovers and four countries later, Shuchmacher Endebo was in Rio de Janeiro. Once in Brazil, Shuchmacher Endebo’s email was flooded with messages from Stanford about classes moving online, and he learned that he couldn’t see his baby niece or his grandmother — despite that they were the very reason he made the trip — for fear of transmitting the virus. His indignation prompted him to wonder if his experience was universal.

“How many people are dealing with things like this?” he remembered reflecting. “Is there a way we can tell those stories?”

With that question in mind, the Life in Quarantine Project was born — an archive dedicated to telling as many pandemic-related stories as possible.

“I think what drew me to the project was this common understanding that we want to create an archive that is as inclusive as possible,” said third-year Ph.D. student Farrah Bazzi, who manages the project alongside Shuchmacher Endebo, and fourth-year Ph.D. candidate Ellis Schriefer. Historically, they said, only privileged individuals had their stories written down and shared; through the Life in Quarantine Project, however, everybody has the opportunity to make their voice heard.

“We want people to tell us what the pandemic is in their experience,” said Shuchmacher Endebo. “We have narratives from doctors, we have narratives from governments, we have narratives from conspiracy theorists.” 

In addition to prioritizing diverse experiences, the Life in Quarantine team wanted to highlight the international connectedness that emerged from the pandemic. The team found that, since nobody is unaffected by COVID-19, reading about others allows people to feel a connection to those living in different circumstances.

“We are all ultimately worried about the same things — our family, our health, the people we care about, how our communities are going to change,” said Schriefer. 

The project managers also aimed to amplify unheard voices, including those of incarcerated people. The first entry submitted from inside a prison told the story of guards in Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) refusing to wear masks, and the subsequent prison revolt that ensued. 

“It doesn’t seem to matter that MCC is unique among prisons, in that a high percentage of its residents have turned their backs on self-destructive lifestyles, choosing instead to invest their time and energies into education and other modes of rehabilitation,” wrote the anonymous author.

People in prisons across the country shared similar frustrations about noncompliant prison guards — the Life in Quarantine website is now inundated with narratives from incarcerated people whose voices would not usually be heard by the general public.

Barriers between prisons and the public were not the only obstacles the project overcame. Early on, project managers realized that they would have to overcome the language barrier to foster international connectedness.

“This is a pandemic that is global in scope, and in order to demonstrate that, we tried, through languages, to create some sort of international solidarity,” Bazzi said. Thus accurately translating submissions is vital.

“We want them to say it not only in their own words but in their own language, which does dictate how we interpret the word,” said Schriefer. “We were obsessive over how we were going to create these Google forms in languages we don’t speak.”

Furthermore, no submissions were edited before being posted on the website. Editing, the team said, would remove a layer of authenticity and distort their goal of telling stories as candidly and as inclusively as possible. 

“We want to allow people to put their thoughts on paper in any way they would like to do that,” Bazzi said.

Anonymity was another big concern for some submitters, particularly for Chinese writers who didn’t want to be associated with their opinions about the government and its handling of the virus. The Life In Quarantine team’s decision to go anonymous went against many open education standards. 

“You want to put your name on your work, and you want to share it. People can edit it, they can change it and read it,” said Schriefer. They found, however, that privacy and freedom of speech are less inhibited when their identity is protected, and a decision was made to acknowledge people by initials only.

Anonymity in open education was brought up again when Grossman College professor Dave Dillon came to the project managers with the idea to create a textbook from the archive. Dillon is involved in the EPIC (Education Partnership for Internationalizing Curriculum) Community College Fellowship program, which is organized by Stanford’s Global Studies department and aims to help applicants widen the impact of a project they are passionate about.

“To him, it was very clear that those stories had a huge potential to be used in the classroom, because there’s so much you can understand about cultural dynamics, economics, social economics,” Shuchmacher Endebo said. “It reveals so much about what kind of country the United States is right now.”

Now, the Life in Quarantine team is working with Dillon to select stories from the archive and adapt them for the classroom — a textbook entirely based on anonymous narratives.

In addition to working with Dillon, the archive is partnering with the Noise Filter podcast, in which Eric Griggs and MarkAlain Dery, two community health and infectious disease specialists, dispel false information about the pandemic. Now, the doctors on the Noise Filter podcast have begun reaching out to people who both submitted stories to the Life in Quarantine Project and indicated on the form that they would like to be contacted again. Writers then read their stories in their voices for the podcast, humanizing an impersonal healthcare crisis.

On Aug. 7, the new Life in Quarantine website went live. In addition to featuring unseen narratives, the new website highlights art, music, blogs, mutual relief, aid funds and other educational resources. As the pandemic continues to evolve, the project does as well.

“It’s an ongoing process, and we’re all learning as we’re doing this,” said Bazzi. “I think that we just want to provide a platform for people who are amazed at how rapidly the world has changed in the past couple of months.”

With no end to the pandemic in sight, the Life in Quarantine team aims to maintain a historical record that can chart changes in attitude as time progresses and people learn to live with the virus. Above all, the project serves to represent the international connection created by the pandemic. As Shuchmacher Endebo put it, “we’re all in this together.”

Contact Sophia Peyser at speyser21 ‘at’ spenceschool.org.

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Sophia Peyser is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.