Marla Morris FRSA serves as a chaplain in a trauma hospital in the US in a small town in Georgia.
She argues that the stories that we choose to tell our children, or not tell, about Covid-19 will shape the historical record and shape future generations to come and that we must fight to keep these stories alive in the historical archive.
Covid-19 has taken the lives of so many. In the years that I have served as chaplain I have never witnessed so much death. The US has not done a good job dealing with the pandemic. The US does not have a national health policy but perhaps this will change with President Joe Biden’s leadership. But for now, every state follows the mandates of governors, many of whom have not mandated the simple act of wearing masks. This approach, clearly, has not worked.
Fellowship and friendship
“What should I do?” an emergency department physician asked me, “how should I best help this family?” The emergency room physician wanted my help, as a chaplain. This moment stunned me because physicians traditionally do not ask for my help, certainly not in this way. Something fundamental has changed in the inter-relations between medical personnel and chaplains.
This fellowship I experienced (with the emergency department physician) is notable, especially because this kind of dialogue is not a result of policy change; rather, it is a human response to an overwhelming crisis. No one has answers and, as a chaplain, I am just as baffled as medical personnel. We turn to one another for solace and attempt to do our best to carry out our duties.
While health professions have learnt a lot about treatment and successful vaccines for Covid-19 are on the way, but they are not here yet. Until successful both are in place and become sustainable, hospital staff will continue to witness patients dying nearly every day. Physicians and chaplains alike are psychologically exhausted.
Storytelling and the Historical Archive
As chaplain my job is to listen. At a basic level, families and patients in traumatic situations need to be heard. Chaplains need not say much. I ask: “Tell me what happened? Tell me your story.” Patients and families want to be heard. Storytelling is essential to mental health. Victims of trauma need to talk.
I write this article in response to a blog written by Adanna Shallowe published in January 2021. Shallowe talks about the African-American poet Amanda Gorman who performed “The Hill We Climb” – her spoken word poem – at President Biden’s inauguration. Shallowe points out that Gorman’s storytelling via poetry matters. Indeed, I became tearful listening to her and many news anchors commented on the power of Gorman’s words on CNN and MSNBC.
Shallowe’s blog caught my attention because her thoughts so resonate with my work in chaplaincy. Quite simply, for a chaplain, it is the patient’s story that matters. The chaplain’s job is to open up a space for the patient’s story to be told. Moreover, those stories must be archived, or they will be lost in the historical record.
Archiving the Past
Covid-19 is a historical and global disaster that must be archived, not only in memory but also in the historical record. Moreover, the historical record must take note of gross inequities of healthcare, especially in the US because Covid-19 has taken the lives of more black and brown peoples – who do not have access to healthcare – than those of other communities that do. Those without healthcare suffer and are more likely to die.
All Covid-19 deaths must not be forgotten but we need to remember how unequal its distribution was. Walter Benjamin, in his work on philosophy of history, writes about the “fight for the oppressed past.” The oppressed past must be fought for; meaning historians must work to keep those who might otherwise be forgotten in the historical record. At the European Graduate School in 2011 Judith Butler points out that Walter Benjamin’s notion of the oppressed past is of great importance because these stories – specially those of oppressed peoples – can slip and get left out of the historical archive. Who gets erased from history and why, are questions for educators and historians alike.
Fellowship and friendship revisited
The stories of frontline workers, between physicians and chaplains, should also be archived and not forgotten. These are part of the history of the response to the Covid-19 crisis. What we choose to do – or not do – during this terrible global crisis will make a difference for generations to come. Our response must be one of fellowship and friendship in relation to others. We must fight for our future together. And this fight must be a global response.
Marla Morris, PhD, is Professor of Education, Georgia Southern University, US.