Why the UAE should try this unusual idea from the Channel Islands
Chronicling what life was like during the coronavirus will be of value to future generations
May 7 will be the 75th anniversary of the unconditional German surrender that brought World War Two to an end in Europe. A couple of days later, on May 9, the British Channel Islands, including my other home of Jersey, were at last liberated after nearly five years of Nazi occupation.
The plans drawn up to commemorate those momentous events, across Europe as well as in Jersey, are now cancelled or on hold, as the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic is tackled.
In learning about the history of Jersey during the occupation, I have, of course, read books that relate the official stories and record the public events. I have perhaps learned more though from the few slim volumes of memoirs written by ordinary people who lived on the island throughout the War.
If memories, diaries and photographs are deposited in the Archives, they will be of enormous value to historians and social scientists in the future
Amongst my most cherished possessions is a diary covering several years of the occupation written by my great-aunt. It is not a document of huge historical significance – far from it. Instead, it records in detail the minutiae of daily life, food shortages, an ever-increasing list of regulations, little things to keep up her spirits when news of the wider war was gloomy.
The value of such personal memoirs is well understood in Jersey. It is through them that it is best possible to understand the real history of the occupation and how it affected everyone’s lives.
Jersey is not isolated from the coronavirus, with 170 positive cases so far and a few deaths, in a population of only 106,000 I am following the news there through telephone calls to my family, emails and via government messages posted on social media.
The other day, Chief Minister John Le Fondre, having provided an update on the growing number of cases on the island and on the need to abide by tighter rules on social distancing, made a rather unusual appeal.
The island’s archives, he said, were urging people living through the lockdown to record and collect information, impressions, pictures, anything at all that would tell the tale of how normal life had changed.
As has been shown from studies of the occupation years, if such memories, diaries, photographs and the like are deposited in the archives, they will be of enormous value to historians and social scientists in the future.
Indeed, if there are major changes in society that we cannot yet see or predict, perhaps some of the clues to how they began will lie in data placed on record by ordinary members of the public who have lived through the current crisis.
I wonder what thought is being given to the creation and management of such an approach here in the UAE in terms of recording for posterity the impact of the coronavirus?
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It is not too difficult to devise a way in which all official material can be collected, stored and later made available. Public statements, videos, text messages, online newspaper articles, all of this is easy.
How about other examples of ways in which messages and instructions are communicated to the public, however? Samples of some of the notices being pasted onto shop doors and windows, or at the entrance to blocks of flats? Internal notices sent around in offices, both government and private, about reduced hours, or working from home? These, too, are important. I wonder if such a collection of material is being put together.
All of the above, however, relate to one half of the equation – the messages being transmitted to the public or within government departments and companies, to employees.
What about the other side, the response of the intended recipients? In the future when researchers look back on how the UAE dealt with this pandemic, they will need information about the public’s reaction.
What did people think? How did they change their lifestyle to accommodate new conditions of lockdowns or working from home? How did they view the social distancing rules? How did students feel about being suddenly plunged into online learning from home?
All this and much more can be recorded in written form, in photographs, in archives of email and social media posts.
With the ease of internet communication, I suspect that many UAE residents will already have produced all kinds of material to send to friends and relatives about the impact that the Covid-19 coronavirus is having on their lives.
Before that material and much else gets forgotten, lost or deleted, an institution here could make an appeal for some of it to be deposited for long-term preservation, as the Jersey Archives have done.
The next few months are likely to have an enormous impact on the UAE, a period that will be the subject of future studies of our economic and social development.
It is important that ephemeral evidence of the way in which we adapted, and are adapting, is preserved for those studies.
We are in the middle of an unprecedented period of time in the UAE and beyond. We should ensure that future generations understand how we coped with it.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture
Updated: April 10, 2020 09:15 AM