Museum of Early Trades & Crafts

Writing Our History: COVID-19 in New Jersey
By Deborah Farrar Starker, METC Executive Director

Deborah Farrar Starker | April 3, 2020


METC’s mission and vision statement includes the phrase, Sharing the past, imagining the future, and as a history museum, we often take the unique perspective of stepping back and observing the actions, the communications, the policies and the reactions of the world around us with an eye toward how this will shape our history. Needless to say, this is a difficult time for us all. Life as we know it appears to be on hold while we hunker down, and prepare for even more difficult times.

But it is important to recognize that how we act today will be remembered for many years.

That is why we at METC created this Share Your Stories link. We know that making connections, sharing stories and writing about how you feel can be emotionally beneficial —but it is also a powerful tool in helping others understand all the ways in which this crisis affects real people and it provides a platform for us to make an account in real time. I’ve included here some of my thoughts in an attempt to try to put some perspective on things for myself. Please consider sharing your stories and being a part of METC’s efforts to bring the community together. Be safe, and I look forward to reading your personal stories soon.

As part of some research for this project, I recently read a few articles about the history of the pandemic, and one of the things I learned is that there is always some good we can find in these lamentable times—unexpected social outcomes, new medical breakthroughs, and people who rise to the occasion to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. For example, we can look far back in history to the 5th century, when a devastating plague struck the Eastern Roman Empire. As the plague ravaged the capital of Constantinople, Emperor Justinian made many provisions to ease the burden for his people, and even after he fell victim to the plague, he provided financial support to care for the sick and dying.

Fast forward a millennia or so to the 1918 Pandemic. It was here that we saw regular everyday people– teachers, boy scouts and letter carriers called upon to provide educational materials to the public and to teach health precautions. Imagine how difficult it was to get the word out about hygiene and quarantine with the only media being newspapers, letters, pamphlets and flyers! Remember, the first radio news broadcast did not take place until August 1920.

Interestingly, it was women who stepped up in a big way during and after this particular crisis. The virus had disproportionately affected young men, which in combination with World War I, created a shortage of labor. This gap enabled women to play a new and indispensable role in the workforce during this period which may have helped spark the ratification of the 19th Amendment just a year later.

So what will be our legacy as we confront the 21st century’s COVID-19 crisis? How will we be remembered? What major transformation will take place after we are all back at work and school? No one really knows. But what we do know is that we have the ability right now to step up, as so many in our community already have through their leadership, their service on the front line in hospitals and clinics, by re-assuring the public, by volunteering to sew masks and donate meals to health care professionals, and by supporting each other –financially, actively and spiritually.

We are writing our own history right now. Let’s hope when our children’s children learn about this time, they will see this was one of our greatest moments and appreciate how compassionate we were towards each other, and how we did all we could to find our humanity in this time of tragedy.

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