Covid-19 lockdown: Capturing history ... when you're still in it

12:51 pm on 25 March 2021

By Emma-Jean Kelly*

First person - I was at Pukeahu, the National War Memorial Park teaching students about the horrors of the influenza pandemic as lockdown loomed a year ago.

A woman using the Covid Tracer app at a QR code in the window of a business during level 2 in Wellington on15 February 2021

A woman using the Covid Tracer app at a QR code in the window of a business during level 2 in Wellington on 15 February 2021. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Back in 1918 as the Spanish flu ripped through an Aotearoa that was still trying to make sense of the losses of war, children were said to have run out into the streets telling strangers their parents wouldn't wake up. They'd died in the night; their children were now left to fend for themselves.

Standing there teaching history that might in some shape or form be upon us soon, was an unnerving coincidence. I remember at that time everything felt pretty surreal, sort of novel, and for a history nerd like me, kind of exciting in an odd way.

Now a year on it's very clear that the 'horrors' of my own pandemic story pale in comparison to those I was teaching from 1918. I was lucky - I kept my life, my job, my home and enough toilet paper in the bathroom cupboard. Although I recall there was a supply shortage of hand sanitiser that a friend and I tried to solve by making homemade stuff with gin (spoiler alert: useless; not enough alcohol in gin) so I suppose my greatest loss was probably a bottle of gin.

Plaque reads: This memorial marks the final resting place of many of the 1,128 men, women and children of Auckland who died as a result of New Zealand's worst epidemic which peaked in November 1918, killing a total of 8,573 New Zealanders.

Memorial to victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Photo:

As an oral historian I knew I wanted to capture the feeling, hear people's raw stories, so that in the future, we can teach the next generation of students and tell our grandchildren what it really felt like to be in the shadow of a pandemic.

No caption

Taking one for the team, Dr Emma-Jean Kelly having her own oral history recorded during lockdown. Photo: Supplied

There are still a fair few (mostly Pākehā) historians around who believe that only if it's written in a book or recorded in an archive, can a historical fact be considered true. The problem with that, as everyone knows, is that (to coin a phrase) history is usually recorded by the biggest bully, and therefore not everything that was recorded is true.

The current historical fad for quoting from 'Papers Past', an online digital repository of old newspapers is an excellent example. I wouldn't believe everything I read in the newspaper today, so why would I believe it because it was written in a newspaper one hundred years ago? This is not to say the written word can never be trusted, but that there are other ways to learn about the past, to inform the present and the future.

I'm the Audio-Visual Historian at Manatū Taonga, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and it is my lucky and privileged position to be paid to record oral histories, and I think more importantly, support others to record those personal accounts of history in their communities. When lockdown started in 2020, I turned to the source I believe tells us more about the human condition than the written word - the spoken one. So much can be understood by hearing another human speaking - the pauses they take, the intonation of their voice - did they laugh when they said they wanted to kill their kids during lockdown or were they deadly serious? You'd never know it from the transcript.

As things started to look like we would not be able to avoid this invisible threat here, my colleagues and I set to capturing the lockdown stories of Aotearoa, but how? Yeah, you know how, those dreaded video calls that seem to dominate our lives now. Our team of nine oral historians in communities all over Aotearoa took us (digitally) inside 30 bubbles.

Recently when I listened back to those recordings I was moved by a nurse who described the biggest challenge of her professional life as being like a nationwide wave of rising anxiety. "It sort of felt like there was this great big tsunami about to hit, but no one knew when it was going to hit and how big it was going to be and what direction to run," she told us.

No caption

Albert Traill and family. Photo: Supplied

There was also the unfailing optimism of an airline steward, Albert, who despite watching his beloved industry dwindle to almost nothing, told us about how he kept his spirits up by teaching Fijian dance classes online. I was blown away by the efforts of wāhine toa Tiitihuia, who shared her remarkable story of having to urgently expand her bubble from five to 13. She took in eight kids from her wider whānau because their parents weren't coping. That was on top of looking after her own autistic child and the stress of having to close her beauty salon business. How much can one person take?

No caption

Titihuia (right), business owner, mum of five and bubble-wrangler to 13, with her husband and their children Photo: Supplied

To non-historians it might seem quite odd, or frankly a bit of a waste of time to be zooming in on this moment in history, when we're not done with it yet. Even as I write this, not long before the first anniversary of the 2020 nationwide lockdown Auckland has just crept tentatively out of its fourth lockdown. But it's moments, snapshots of life like Albert's dance classes or Titihuia's family heroics that we historians treasure and want to share. Even my embarrassingly idiotic move with the gin sanitiser might be worth a mention in future (extremely niche) history books.

It's amazing as I sift through the news stories of that lockdown to see how much I've forgotten about that time already. The Prime Minister's voice, authoritative, but so sad, as she told us we would be going into lockdown and listing the freedoms we would forgo to protect each other. How did she not cry? I get a chill hearing that now, remembering what a scary and uncertain time it was for us all.

Lockdown and living our lives in levels is now sadly part of everyday life for the foreseeable future, almost unremarkable in some ways. It's so easy to forget what it felt like as it rushed at us a year ago, how we coped, what changed about us.

So, what is the point of capturing history while we're still in it? ... oh I forget.

*Dr Emma-Jean Kelly is Pou Hītori (Ataata-Rongo) Audio Visual Historian with Manatū Taonga, The Ministry for Culture & Heritage

The stories from the people recorded during the 2020 nationwide lockdown have been made into the podcast series Kei roto I Te Miru: Inside the Bubble find it on the RNZ podcasts and series page, your favourite podcast app or listen to on RNZ National Mondays 9:30pm on Nights with Bryan Crump.