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A historian on living through history

My World's on Fire
A historian on living through history
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #39 • View online

Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!
On Tuesday, Scott Gabriel Knowles marked the passage of another weekday the same way he has more than 200 other times over the last year – by sitting down, looking into a camera, and talking about the pandemic. He stated the date, the global death count from the coronavirus, and shared the story of one of those lives lost. That day, he chose to read an obituary for Elvia Ramirez, a “vivacious, active” 17-year-old who had just started her senior year and had dreamed of becoming an artist.
This was the 240th episode of COVIDCalls, a pandemic project Knowles started one year ago this week. For Knowles, who is a disaster historian, author, and professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the daily livestreams were at first about connecting with his colleagues in academia to hear their perspectives on the suddenly-shifting world. But, as the pandemic progressed, he found himself expanding his conversations to include doctors, librarians, drummers, members of Congress, journalists (myself included), and even his own family (the calls he was “most nervous” about).
I spoke with Knowles ahead of his anniversary episode about his reflections on a year of COVIDCalls and what he’s learned throughout this project and the countless conversations he has facilitated. I’ve decided to share the transcript of our talk nearly in full with you, edited just for length and clarity, as I think it’s a really interesting look at what it meant to start something new amidst so much uncertainty and the challenges of trying to make sense of the past year in real-time.
A screengrab of my November appearance on COVIDCalls
A screengrab of my November appearance on COVIDCalls
“I don’t think the pandemic comports to the kind of timelines that we want it to”
Colleen Hagerty: Is this something you’ve been thinking about lately, that we’re coming up on this anniversary?
Scott Knowles: Actually, to be totally honest with you, I lost track. Time has been so uneven for me in this past year that I actually kind of forgot. For awhile I was marking episodes, like I went back and looked and I made a big deal for the 100th episode and then 150, then 200, and I kind of lost track of time for the one year.
Following it day-by-day, it’s moved in sort of uneven temporality. There have been certain moments in it where it felt like – like late last summer, it felt like we’ve almost reached a kind of a plateau with this. A lot of the questions that I wanted to ask and conversations I want to have had been had. And then things took such a strange turn as we went into the fall and the politics got so strange – and that’s when I talked with you around the election time – that it opened up a whole different pandemic, it seemed. And then once we moved into the new year with the focus on the vaccine and the vaccinations. And then what happened January 6th, it’s entered another new phase.
So, it’s important to mark these anniversaries, but I don’t think the pandemic comports to the kind of timelines that we want it to, that we’re accustomed to marking.
CH: Kind of along those lines, when you first started out what was your goal, and has that shifted as the year has gone by?
SK: The goal was for me was pretty straightforward at the beginning, and it actually dates back to the hurricane season of 2017 with the three hurricanes that hit that fall: Maria, Irma, and Harvey. My parents had retired and were living in Port Aransas, Texas. It was my mom’s dream to live at the beach and my stepfather was fine with it but always felt uncomfortable living in a hurricane zone. And I remember having these conversations with them like, ‘Yeah, you might get some storms but, you know, it’s like a 40-year cycle, climate change might change that but not anytime real soon.’ Then the next thing you know, the landfall of Harvey was about a mile from their house, and they had 10 feet of the ocean coming up their street. 
They evacuated beforehand, but it was an incredibly challenging time for them, and they ended up leaving and selling their house, so they only even lived there for a few months. I remember in that fall, I really wished that I had done a series of discussions to mark out that period of time from the late summer into the winter, because it was such a long, drawn-out process. And then with the three disasters, it all became kind of one big disaster, and there were racial justice elements that were folded in that fall, as well.
So, I think that was already in the back of my mind, and then when Covid hit, I immediately thought, ‘Well, I should start making some calls around,’ because that’s what I usually do – I call people who are in emergency management and people who have relevant scientific expertise just to try to make sense. Then my university shut down [note: Knowles was a professor at Drexel University at this time], and I guess all those sorts of things came together, and I thought maybe I could just do these calls in a public forum. And that’s how it started, I thought maybe for a couple of weeks I’ll do these as public discussions because people want to talk, and it’ll mark this time for the historical record.
The other thing that I always want to do is to try to surface what sometimes is a little bit more esoteric disaster science, which doesn’t make it into the up into the news stream. Journalists working on deadlines have a limited number of options, if there’s somebody who has already been published in their newspaper and it’s a person you know you can go to, there’s an existing relationship, they’re going to go to that person. Disasters make for weird journalistic deadlines, I don’t need to tell you that, but I worry about that because there’s a lot of great work out there. I thought, you know, it would really good to create kind of a room where journalists and researchers could find each other.
So, that’s how I started doing it, and I had a pretty clear idea for guests for a couple of weeks and then that went on to three weeks, and then April… I have to say, even just talking to you about this, I hadn’t thought about this for awhile, I still had things on my calendar for the summer that I fully thought I was going to do. Then as April started to happen, just the real terror of April 2020, and I started to take those things off the calendar, that’s when it started to occur to me that COVIDCalls might become something that would go long.
“Historians get really itchy when they say stuff like, ‘We’re living through historic times,’ but we really are”
CH: And did that realization shift your mission at all? I definitely have noticed throughout the course of the year, you know, you’ve brought on a lot of different people – in the beginning, maybe more people in the disaster or emergency research space and then broadening out to the politicians that you had on over the last month. 
SK: When April happened, and I started to think, ‘Okay, I might do this a bit longer,’ then I did make a conscious decision that it would become more of an archive and it would be important to have a wider variety of voices, but I was still pretty much focused on the idea that they would be social scientists and humanists. And then George Floyd was murdered. So that caused another rethink of what it was.
Then 2020 became its own sort of historical project in and of itself – historians get really itchy when they say stuff like, ‘We’re living through historic times,’ but we really are. I mean, last year we really did see a convergence of multiple disasters with long prehistories all coming together. And I think at that point, I decided I would go to the end of the year, that was what I thought, or go late into the fall, maybe to the election.
It was serving two functions at that point: it was helping me cope, honestly, just purely selfishly, it was working really well at my house. I have two children, they were doing zoom school, my wife is an occupational therapist and she was treating patients, so in the morning we would all go to our separate rooms. Five o'clock [when the show starts], my oldest son comes in and helps me, so he’s in the room with me. It gave our day a sort of a rhythm, and we would talk about the program during dinner.
It was a form of coping and making sense of this long, weird, undifferentiated stream of time that lockdown was, then it occurred to me that – and I’m not the only person doing this by a mile – but it was a form of building an archive. And going back to that insight from 2017, I have needed and wanted to have these kinds of, like, I don’t have to even describe what it is I do – it’s like a half archive. It’s a place where you go and get ideas to then go further.
So to really do that, I wanted to then include a much wider variety of guests, and the longer it’s gone, the more clear it’s become to me that if this is something I wanted to come back to 10 years from now, I am going to want to know what the community thinks, I am going to want to know what a textile artist thinks, and on and on, so that’s where the variety throughout the fall really starts to open up. And that has been – I used this term advisedly – but that has been fun, getting those wider perspectives has changed the nature of the conversations. 
“It’s punishing to read those [obituaries], but I think we all should”
CH: One of the aspects that has been really consistent is reading the obituaries to start each of the episodes. And I’m curious about what that process is like for you and how you integrate that into your day, and then why it is something that you feel is important to continue doing at the beginning of the show?
SK: I started with the daily statistics for two reasons: one, as I felt like if you were listening over a period of time that would mark things even more effectively than me telling you what the date is. I wanted to have them as part of this record, also as a point of which I can refer to when guests are on more than once – I will go back and talk to them about the count when they were on the first time. 
I don’t know if you heard today’s, but I was talking with Jacque Wernimont, who is an expert in death counting, and Robert Soden, who’s interested in what it means to count disasters, and we all were saying that we really just are deeply uncomfortable with the death count because we know it’s inaccurate, but at the same time, we have to work with it. And I talked to Lori Peek, who’s the director of the Hazard Center at the University of Colorado, and it occurred to me through that conversation that I should have a life story of someone to counterbalance those statistics. So, I started looking for the obituaries and that’s been its own journey.
I defer to people like Alex Goldstein who does FacesOfCOVID, I mean he does this – I do it once a day, five times a week, and he’s doing a lot more of it than that. It’s punishing to read those, but I think we all should.
CH: Have you listened back on any of the earlier episodes? I’m thinking in particular about last March or April?
SK: I taught a class over the summer of 2020 on Covid-19, and I was just thinking about this the other day, how strange that was. It was like teaching a course on World War Two in 1942, you know? I’m glad I did it, because that also sort of made a record, and I used some of the COVIDCalls as source material for the course. And when you do go back to those calls from March and April, particularly, there’s a bewilderment there, and a sense of fear. I mean, we were spraying our mail down, because we didn’t know if we could get it through the mail. So that does feel like a very different time. 
There are some of them I have gone back to read several times just because we’re surrounded by brilliant people, and that’s been a fortifying thing for me.
CH: From here, I know you’ve mentioned that you’ve had moments throughout where you thought, ‘Well, at this point maybe I’ll stop.’ And we’ve surpassed those moments. So is there a timeline that you have in mind now, or is it just as long as it feels like it’s serving you that you’re going to continue?
SK: Well, I mean, Colleen, when does the disaster end? This is my problem right now.
I mean, we need to take into account that prehistory of how we got here, and then it’s unfolded in these different moments. The other thing that’s happened is that I moved Asia in early February. The archive of COVIDCalls is very focused on the United States, and so I’d like to take more time to talk with brilliant people about what that’s meant in Taiwan and in China and in Singapore and then Korea. You know, that death count here in Korea is very low compared to the United States, but the cultural impact, the social-political impact is incredibly strong, they’ve transformed their society to deal with this disaster. 
That’s part of wanting to keep doing it, as it truly is a pandemic, so I’ve got to get beyond the United States, so there’s more work to do. For now, I’d like to go to the end of 2021, and to be totally honest with you, beyond there I haven’t made any plans. Each call generates about a 10,000-word transcript. I finished episode number 233 today. That’s a lot of words.
I would love it as the year goes on if I could get some people to work in the archive, to go ahead and start reading and offering their own assessments and analysis of the trends and conversations and keywords and concepts that they hear or particular conversations that have meant a lot to them. I’ve been having some conversations with folks who are artists to consider, maybe, some of the calls could almost become graphic novels or illustrated in a way to bring some of the conversations literally to life. I’m in the process right now of trying to decide what the next phase of it should look like and how to render it, so all suggestions are welcomed.
Thanks again to Scott Gabriel Knowles for his time – you can (and should!) check out COVIDCalls every weekday at 5:30pm ESTon YouTube, Twitch, Facebook Live, and Periscope.
I’ve previously featured shorter Q&As, so I’d welcome your feedback on whether you’d enjoy seeing more extensive interviews like this in future newsletters. Would you prefer audio? Video? Let me know in the comments!
As always…
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James Green
Great article by Colleen Hagerty about what A YEAR of a pandemic has done to our #mentalhealth.

Also, you need to be reading Colleen's "My World’s on Fire" newsletter. https://t.co/dI1pr0TPT1
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