A review of Healing Histories, a timeline exploring the COVID-19 pandemic, directed by Cara Page, Susan Raffo, and Anjali Taneja
Yesmar Oyarzun, Rice University
Cara Page and Susan Raffo
Healing Histories is a timeline that follows the emergence of COVID-19 globally and within the U.S. In addition to tracing the evolution of the virus, this timeline focuses on the resistance and response to how the pandemic has been managed. In particular, this timeline examines the way that histories of white supremacy, racism and xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, economic injustice, and conditional access to care shape the U.S. response to COVID-19.
We have been working for 11 years on a comprehensive timeline of the medical-industrial complex, including material on the cultural evolution of medicine in Europe that preceded the colonization of Turtle Island (a name some Indigenous communities use for North America). Our main timeline has grown too large for a single open-source platform. As we began working towards developing the digital platform needed to house the primary material, the pandemic hit our communities. We watched as the same eugenic patterns we were working with in the larger timeline shaped the current response to and experiences of the pandemic.
We decided to track the pandemic and to put together a timeline focused just on COVID-19. We reached out to our comrades at the Digital Humanities Center at Barnard College, who provided guidance by helping us customize the Knight Lab’s Timeline.JS timeline tool and providing technical support.
Our primary audiences are those working within the field of healthcare and healing and those working as organizers within health-related fields. We have a large relationship-based contact list of healthcare and healing practitioners and health-related organizers who are committed to this work. The COVID-19 timeline includes a curriculum which has three parts: mapping the context and conditions of COVID-19 within one’s own community, transforming and holding trauma as part of this work, and working with systems and communities. While we assume the audience we named above, our intent is to produce popular education materials that can be used by anyone for any reason.
As community organizers, we are committed to continuing to make this material more accessible, not just visually but also for those who use text readers. As people who work outside of the academic field, we are building a timeline that is guided by community advisors to support accessibility and relevance to people in a variety of work and home contexts.
Healing Histories is a reflexive and multi-faceted public digital humanities project centered around a robust, interactive COVID-19 timeline. At the time of this review, the timeline documents shifts in the pandemic and its response from September 2019 to June 2021. The timeline focuses on six aspects of COVID-19’s ongoing history: public health, the prison-industrial complex, xenophobia, economics, racism, vaccination, and healthcare. While the creators acknowledge the non-comprehensive nature of these labels, the categories themselves point to the project’s core concerns and the collective’s ongoing project of making visible the ways that racism, the prison-industrial complex, and the medical-industrial complex come together to shape our experiences, our health, and our abilities to fight illness as individuals and communities.
Beyond providing a timeline of events, this project offers structured ways to engage with the timeline. The website offers a three-pronged curriculum with meaningful activities that guide how one might interact with the information, as well as prompts to guide reflection. A segment on “Mapping Context And Conditions” asks readers to engage with the roles of place, themselves as individuals, their communities, and the institutions around them during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Transforming and Holding Trauma” calls on participants to first consider how their own bodies respond to trauma and triggers. It then moves from reflections on their own “Window of Tolerance” toward Kai Cheng Thom’s notion of “The Window of Transformation,” where users can dream and envision how they wish the future to be. The last segment, “Working with Systems and Communities,” guides participants through thinking about the timeline relative to increasingly complex relations: first how the events contained in it affect themselves and their kin, to how they might think of the events in relation to accountabilities to land, work, and the body and spirit. While the three segments are independent of one another, they articulate well together, speaking to each other without significant overlap.
This project grows out of an on-going collaboration between co-creators Cara Page, Susan Raffo, and Anjali Taneja. A reflexive blog available on the website gives insight into who the project team are as people, with biographic snippets and brief forays into issues at the core of the team’s larger project to document the history of the medical-industrial complex. The blog, like the rest of the website, showcases the team’s ongoing interests in and commitments to anti-racist work that is transformative. True to the tagline that opens the website, “Remembering histories, transforming futures,” stories, blogs, and activities focus on moving individuals from one level of consciousness and self-capacity to another.
Overall, this website is an engaging platform for knowing about, thinking through, and living in the wake of COVID-19, but also in the wake of all the catastrophes that have made COVID-19-as-pandemic possible. Despite an intended audience of healthcare workers and health-related organizers, this project is well-suited for a variety of post-secondary humanities and social sciences courses that focus on the relationship between medicine and race.
At its core, this is a project committed not simply to revelation but to transformation. As the project “Curriculum” suggests, it seeks to go beyond bearing witness to history and catastrophe, instead seeking to heal through difficult processes of reflection, acceptance, and dreaming of something different: “different answers; ones that keep expanding and lifting up our connections and repair while decreasing the number of stories of violence and disregard that need repeating.”