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Lifelines: How COVID-19 Has Led To Collective Trauma

Sara Plourde, NHPR

It's been just over a month since pretty much everything about normal life in New Hampshire has changed.

On March 29, Gov. Chris Sununu made the same decision as many other leaders around the world -- to close all non-essential businesses and tell residents to stay inside their homes.

For people already living with trauma or those in difficult home situations, it's been especially challenging. NHPR's new series Lifelines will look closely at trauma in the time of COVID-19. 

How has coronavirus affected you? Let NHPR know via this short survey.

One of our first questions was whether COVID-19 itself is a kind of trauma. Neil Gross, professor of sociology at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, says yes. NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Gross to learn more.

Rick Ganley: First, can you explain the idea of what collective trauma is? It's not the same as psychological trauma.

Neil Gross: So psychological trauma is what people normally think of as trauma. It's someone witnesses a horrific event and they're traumatized and scarred by it. Collective trauma is of a different nature. It's essentially what happens when a society undergoes an extremely rapid and usually unwanted change. So this could be what happens after an economic crisis. It could be a political upheaval. It could be what happens after a natural disaster. All of a sudden, the society's routines change. Its social structure, its economic life changes. People's positions in society shifts. And that can be extremely disorienting.

Rick Ganley: And what would the difference be between a large scale event creating general stress among people? I'm thinking things like a natural disaster that's usually more limited in scope. But an event like this, like a pandemic, that's much more broader, obviously.

Neil Gross: One difference is clearly just in terms of the number of people that are affected. Think of a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, for example. Many, many millions were affected, but it was limited to particular parts of the country. I think here we're talking about something that is a kind of trauma that is experienced by people all over the world -- rapid change. But of course, that change looks different depending on what country you're in and what part of the country you're in, and also depending on your own circumstances. So this is a sort of unprecedented collective trauma. It's one that's extremely wide in scale.

Rick Ganley: And probably will have much further lasting effects, I think, than some other larger scale events. What are some of the effects then of this collective trauma that society is going to go through right now and maybe, you know, farther down the field?

Neil Gross: I think the consequences of this in the near term are going to be quite, quite devastating. There's the immediate sense of insecurity, and anxiety and just difficulty that comes with the loss of income for millions of Americans and for people around the world. Anxiety associated with an utter change in their work lives, working, in some cases, quite hazardous conditions. But I think there's another kind of near-term change that is also going on, and that is that people's sense of their everyday routines, of what it means to just go about your everyday life, going to the store or going to school, going to work. That's all utterly transformed in a moment. And that can be anxiety producing in and of itself. So I think there's going to be a really significant rise in anxiety as a result of these changes. And then in the near term, I think the consequences are likely to be quite serious. We're obviously in a period of a major and perhaps very sustained economic downturn. And it's just kind of impossible to say at what point we're going to be able to restore the ship.

Tell NHPR what your coronavirus questions are here.

Rick Ganley: We're kicking off a series today that's looking at the impact that the virus is having, in particular on people who are coping with past traumas. We'll be talking about ways to help and and heal at the personal level. What kinds of things help heal at the collective level?

Neil Gross: I think a big part of it has to do with leadership and what people, from politicians, to faith leaders, to writers and others, what kinds of stories they can tell, what kinds of things they can say to help people put things in perspective and get a better sense on what's happened and how they can move forward and find meaning in moving forward.

You know, I will say that one of the interesting effects of moments of collective trauma, these moments of real change, is that they are also openings for potentially some radical restructurings of society. And I don't necessarily mean radical in the political sense, but when routines are loosened and everything's in a moment of crisis, it's of course terrible. But it also creates some possibilities for movement that might not have been there before. The fact that there's this major crisis that might create some opportunities for a movement around longstanding issues of inequality in this country. Again, it's not something to be optimistic about, but it might be something that could come out of this long term.

Click here to subscribe to NHPR's coronavirus newsletter to get the latest stories and updates.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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