Living and learning under a global pandemic: Lessons from diverse U.S. households
The first coronavirus case was identified in late February in the United States. Since then, cases have been surging and people in different localities have experienced different kinds of lock-downs and closures of the economy and schools. An important part of the story that emerges in the United States is the diversity of experiences, and the lack of coordinated, federally-organized policy. As of this date (October 31), the United States has reported 9 million cases and over 230,000 deaths. (View current count.) As winter approaches, cases are drastically surging again in most of the states.
The U.S. team has been collecting diary entries from thirty-three families from diverse social, cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, social class, and geographical locations across the United States since May to see how families are experiencing the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and what they are learning from it. Our participants include families with transnational ties to Mexico, Central America, Korean, China and Vietnam, living in both rural and urban areas across ten states (California, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Washington). The sample includes “essential workers,” professionals working at home while juggling the care of young children, and those who have lost work due to the pandemic. A subset of families have agreed to continue writing once a month for the next six months.
As ethnographers we have been forced to adapt our preferred methodological approaches to the study of the pandemic. We couldn’t do participant observation in homes and communities, engaging with families’ daily life and experiences ourselves, as we have in other research. Instead, we enlisted our participants to be ethnographers along with us, gaining insights into their homes and communities through their eyes and ears: the written responses to prompts and the photos, audio recordings and videos they took. We have asked families to tell us about everyday lived experiences at home, as they juggle the demands of work, school and care of children; what they notice in their neighborhoods and communities; how they gather information about the pandemic; what they think about public health mandates and other unfolding circumstances (such as the Black Lives Matters protests that took place in June); and what and how they are learning during this unprecedented moment.
What we have come to see - perhaps not surprisingly - is that there is no single “U.S. story.” There are many stories, shaped by families’ social, racial, ethnic, and geographical positioning, and by their own sense-making processes. Experiences of the pandemic are intimately bound up with families’ views of the larger sociopolitical context. Nevertheless, a few patterns are emerging, along with a few surprises (the hallmark of ethnographic research).
1. Confusion, frustration and a sense of helplessness
Families have expressed both confusion and frustration about pandemic-related policies and procedures, the reopening of schools and the economy, protection from the virus, and the different ways that people in their communities are responding to health mandates. They note contradictions between local, state and federal policies.
Maria, for example, described the confusion about testing and case numbers in her urban area of Nevada, ending with a resigned, “Who knows?” Lola wrote that she was “furious with our president and his lack of leadership along with other government officials who defend his foolishness causing division and confusion.” She noted that many people around her in Texas believed the virus was “media hyped,” but that they were now “paying the price of ignorance” as she watched the numbers spike.
Helen, from North Carolina, expressed similar frustration:
“As the number of confirmed cases in the United States continues to rise, we feel more and more helpless. Apart from buying a lot of useful and useless medicines, it feels like there is nothing we can do. What we can do is to minimize going out and reduce the number of people going to places. Wear masks as much as possible, although it feels a bit weird at the beginning of the pandemic, because no one else in the United States wears masks, even the President of the United States said not to wear masks.”
Havelock, who is an operations manager in a private hospital in California, shared his belief “that there is a bigger agenda being pushed behind this virus and all media outlets are making it bigger than what it is.”
Families with transnational ties compared the U.S. response to other countries. Johnny, who immigrated from China to the United States two years ago, questioned the leadership of the U.S. government handling the pandemic:
“I always have a question: the pandemic in the United States has infected more than 2.2 million people and caused 120,000 deaths, but I have not seen any politicians or government departments take responsibility for this. The President of the United States is proud of this. This is unthinkable in China. Tens of thousands of people have been infected in Hubei, and many government officials have stepped down for this. Why doesn't this happen in the United States?”
2. Uneven effects and inequities
The impact of the pandemic is being felt very unevenly in terms of health, economic well-being and stress. Prior inequities have generally been magnified both within and across households. Families who seem most impacted in terms of daily life stress are those with young children and/or children with special needs (i.e. those who require more constant or specialized care and education), who have limited financial and social resources to address the simultaneous demands of surviving economically, managing their own health, and tending to their children’s educational and socio-emotional needs. Those families who can rely on grandparents or extended family members seem to be faring better in terms of their emotional well-being, even when they face other challenges. In some families, children take on more chores than they did before.
Families with transnational ties and/or mixed citizenship status have access to international networks of information and support about the pandemic, but have additional worries (e.g. about their ability to stay in this country, the threat of deportation or visas being revoked). Chris (originally from Korea) and his wife Rebecca (from China) are both international students under F1 visa. During the pandemic, the U.S. government proposed to revoke students’ visas if their classes were all online. This policy left all international students in limbo. As Chris said, “We should go back to Korea or China, temporarily. Then, we should keep renting this [University] Village apartment while we are in the home country. However, this scenario is less possible or realistic.”
Children in particular developmental periods seem especially impacted, such as young children for whom six or more months without much social interaction is a long stretch in their own social and linguistic development, and children at school transition points. Olivia, from Washington, described how her young children played at “fighting the virus as if it was a bad guy from a show.” She recorded her boys talking with each other: “I wish there was no more virus.” “I wish we could be close to people.”
Gendered Divisions of Labor
In general, women have been more impacted by the pandemic and have taken on more domestic work, though in some cases more equitable gender arrangements have resulted. There are also generational realignments, with both grandparents and children taking up more work than they did previously. Working women are particularly stressed. Three of our participants are mothers and teachers, responsible for organizing instruction for their own children as well as for their classes. Inga, a graduate student from California who also holds a professional job, expressed her frustration emotively: “I demand equality in my relationships and here I am, getting s*** on by [COVID-19] and god-d***-antiquated-gender-roles that I fought SO HARD TO AVOID.” She showed how the time and work were divided within her family in this table:
Tiara, from California, expressed similar sentiments for what she wished the world to learn from this: “Support women! Invest in what we need!...Pay women more. Make men do more.” She added, “I'm learning that we live in a world where everything is political - my Blackness, my health, (everything).”
The technology gap is real, and widening as well. Some in our sample are operating just with one household cell-phone for all their on-line needs. Other households have a plethora of electronic gadgets. The biggest technological divide among our families is not in terms of hardware, however; it is access to technological support for problems that arise as families try to manage the multiple demands on them to be on line. There is unequal access across households to people who can play important roles as technology brokers (as well as language, culture, and health information brokers).
Maria, the mother of three young children whose family migrated from Oaxaca, showed us the list of 30 discrete tasks she was expected to ensure her children completed as they sat with three school-loaned iPads in their separate “classrooms” in her living room each day. The tasks were in English and required technological as well as specialized English reading expertise (e.g. knowing what “short o words” are). Isabel’s elderly parents provided support with domestic tasks, and the family collectively organized to pay the rent after Isabel and her father lost their jobs. (They did this by collecting bottles and cans and preparing food for sale at their church). But there was no one in the household who could provide the technological or pedagogical support they needed as schools moved into homes.
More digitally-resourced families expressed anxiety about the new “on-line” life. Bob, from Washington, wrote: “I feel trapped by screens. It’s better that I don’t think about it too much or else I spiral into a depression over it.” Christine, from a farming community in rural California, wrote at length:
“I feel a deep gnawing anxiety about (the amount of time they spend on screens). It seems very addictive for both of us. I worry about the physical effects on children of so much screen time starting early in their lives...For myself, despite the discomfort of my fingers, the brain-weariness of my mind when trying to compose thoughtful emails or the irritation at having to fill out one more zoom registration, click and tap through one more online purchase - despite all that, I am pulled to check my email obsessively and scan through headlines repeatedly. There’s a feeling of not wanting to miss out on some development, whether a response or inquiry by email, or breaking news. I feel aggravated, worried, addicted, and trapped. EVERYTHING seems to be online now. Shopping, communicating, meetings, socializing, information finding, entertainment, etc.”
For others like Luisa, who was a mom to an “energetic, wonderful, and curious three year-old” while attending college remotely, it was difficult to find a space where she could concentrate on her schoolwork. She found herself taking her exams in the car outside the home she shared with her parents, brother, husband, and young daughter.
3. New opportunities for learning
While children’s formal learning of curricular content is being negatively affected by school closures, the diary data reveals a wide variety of things that children and families are learning through the pandemic, and creative approaches families are taking to learning together at home. This includes children seeking out YouTube videos to learn new skills of their choosing; creating podcasts; reading to and caring for younger siblings; and learning new ways of collaborating and connecting with others via technology. Families are exploring nature and discovering nearby places they had never visited. They are forging creative ways to pool resources to support children’s learning. Such resources vary widely across families, based especially on financial resources; some families have the ability to hire specialized tutors while most are struggling on their own. But even the families in our study with the fewest economic resources are creating new social networks and invigorating extended family relationships to meet their needs during this time.
Participants described some of the lessons they are learning from the pandemic experience as a whole. 12-year-old Mali noted that she had learned “how important it actually is to act as a group.” 16-year-old River expressed: “From this whole experience, I’m starting to go through life with a different perspective. Whatever I do, can affect someone else. And whatever someone else does can affect me.” Her sister, Veruca Salt, seemed to be learning different lessons, however: “Most of the stuff I’m learning is not very positive. The world, mostly America, doesn’t want to cooperate to help others.” Several adults echoed this cynicism. Skip, from Missouri, for example, wrote: “There is acrimony in the neighborhood and no one seems able to have a civil conversation. Even if I agree with one side or another on whatever issue, all sides seem spiteful and childish.”
Others held out hope for more positive lessons to be learned. As Inga from California put it: “My heart has taken a beating through the pandemic, but it’s like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas Eve. I feel like it has stretched 3x larger. I have more capacity for empathy, love, and patience.”
Families are adopting new practices to enhance social, emotional, physical, ecological and spiritual health. This includes spending time in nature, sharing ancient wisdom about herbal remedies and immune-enhancing practices, changing dietary practices, creating on-line Bible study and meditation groups, and more. Marisol, Águila, and their six-year-old daughter Rosita keep a daily “gratitude journal,” and hold a weekly “family council” where they talk about how they feel. Families are doing these things on their own, getting information from their own social networks. They are also sharing their innovative health-related practices with family relatives, friends, and neighbors. Gina described the changes their family has made:
“We created a weekly family adventure. Every week we go out and take a hike or long walk. The four of us plan ahead and look at pictures of our next adventure. This gives our five year old something to look forward to. She’ll now ask me what’s our next adventure or she will have me show her pictures of it.”
Alonzo, who got “stuck” in Los Angeles when he came from a small Mayan village in Guatemala to visit his daughter and grandchild last February, showed the Mayan-inpired art he was painting on his daughter’s backyard wall.
He also described movie nights the family organized each week: they would take turns cooking some special food, and handing out “tickets” to “buy” from a menu: “The member in charge of the activity chooses a movie we watch as a family after dinner. Then we play ‘Fibbage,’ an on-line game, and the winner gets a Golden Ticket to eat for ‘free’ the next week.”
Looking to the future
We will continue to explore these issues in our ongoing work, under the changing circumstances that surely lie ahead, as the country enters the “third wave” of the pandemic, deaths rise close to 300,000, and with the impending presidential election. We look forward to sharing more of our participants’ stories and voices with you - especially the stories of resilience and regeneration, as families both connect with historical and cultural heritage and adopt new practices for the future.
This project is funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.
All the participants' names used in this blog are pseudonyms.