News Release

A Dearth of Covid Storytelling


This past month the United States surpassed one million Covid-19 deaths––hundreds of thousands more deaths than public health officials ever predicted at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Yet it has been commonly easy for Americans unaffected by Covid-19 death and disability to turn away from those realities. 

Debra Caplan, a theater historian, notes that early on in the pandemic, writers addressed “how the 1918 flu disappeared from our collective memory and the historical record.” Although the pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, it eventually became what the historian Alfred Crosby called “America’s forgotten pandemic.” Crosby’s 1989 book is a “cautionary tale,” writes Caplan, “of what happens when people decide to return to ‘normalcy’ before a public health crisis is over.” 

DEBRA CAPLAN,, @debra_caplan
    Caplan is an associate professor of theater at Baruch College, CUNY.

Caplan writes that “we are witnessing a similar thing happen in real time.” Though literature routinely addressed plagues and sickness prior to the 1918 flu, there is an “almost-total absence of literature, film, or other storytelling” about it. With governments’ attention on war, “information about the pandemic was actively suppressed by most governments around the world.” She says that the pandemic made a near-complete disappearance from literary and cultural history. 

Caplan argues that we “urgently need to tell the story of what happened––and what’s still happening––in this pandemic. We need to publicly grieve the [one] million Americans we lost, and make plans to try to prevent any more casualties. We need to tell the stories of Long Haulers and survivors.”

Caplan told the Institute for Public Accuracy today that she is addressing “writers and artists, of course, but also the gatekeepers at magazines, newspapers, film and television studios, and publishing houses” in her call for pandemic-focused storytelling. Many writers have shared stories with Caplan about how magazines “are specifically asking that writers not submit work about the pandemic. That’s absurd––we need collective storytelling about this cataclysmic event to process what happened and figure out where to go next. Invite artists to write those stories and share them with the world.” 

Caplan notes that Twitter has actually become “a space where people are talking about the story of the pandemic in their lives and its costs. That’s where I’ve seen the most memorialization and storytelling.”