The Pandemic Generation – how COVID-19 will shape those who have witnessed it

The Pandemic Generation – how COVID-19 will shape those who have witnessed it

Images from the last two years may stay with us longer than we expected.

With illustrations by Giovannino Gabadze.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made a clear mark on our everyday lives. It changed how we think about our social relations, our work life, our communication, and most importantly, the way we think about death. However, both our social and work life disruptions, in my view, are not explicitly traumatic features of the pandemic. While these certainly may have been traumatic experiences for the individuals, their collective impact was not wholly detrimental and may have been constructive for many. They are also certainly not global in nature, as their impact varies dramatically between communities.

Arguably the strongest and also predominantly negative experience was associated with the omnipresence of death. This, while also varying between cultures and being directly related to the course of the pandemic in a given region as well as access to information, is, in my opinion, the strongest factor in influencing collective consciousness during a pandemic.

Mediation of death 

There is this Polish sci-fi movie, O-bi O-ba: The End of Civilization (1985), directed by Piotr Szulkin. It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world in which survivors of a nuclear war live in an isolated vault. Their only hope is The Arc, which is supposed to be on its way to rescue them. However, the existence of The Ark is only a myth, planted to manipulate society. Although it helped to gather people inside the vault, now it only deepens the madness of those who survived. The message constantly broadcast from the loudspeakers says: “The Ark does not exist and will never come. Do not believe the rumors, superstitions, and suppositions. Your today and tomorrow depend only on you.”

Just like the characters from Szulkin’s movie, we all had to listen to and watch the information that was broadcast: the number of infections and the number of deaths related to COVID-19. That is how contact with death was mediated for most of the population. It largely came down to media coverage, which was dominated by the topic of the pandemic. In European societies, the vast majority of citizens have access to media information. Regularly repeated was the number of infected and deaths caused by COVID-19. These figures, although to some extent we have grown accustomed to them and integrated them into our daily lives, remained with us throughout the height of the pandemic and to some extent continue to do so today.

However, media information on death was not limited to numbers, but also included images: depicting the interiors of hospitals, patients lying on beds, blurred faces hiding their identities, equally impersonal doctors and physicians draped in protective clothing, ventilators, ambulances, tents outside hospitals, vaccines, etc. 

The experience of death, however, was not limited to mediated information during the height of the pandemic. For many, the pandemic also meant direct contact with death. According to estimates, between 6 and 15 million people died from COVID-19 (the higher figure is suggested by WHO). Of these, more than 2 million are believed to have died in Europe. Their families, close and distant friends, colleagues, those who cared for them in hospitals, their doctors, those responsible for burial – all experienced direct contact with death.

Many problems of Pandemic Generation

Wondering about the impact of the pandemic on the younger generation, I immediately think about a book from 1923, titled The Problem of Generations. Its author,  German cultural sociologist Karl Mannheim, outlined the concept of the formation of “social generations” (cohorts) influenced by “historical events”. Mannheim distinguished between kinship generation and social generation, the former being defined by blood ties, while the latter by the collective experience of a significant “historical event”. The sociologist assumed that a historical event with generational potential must occur at a relatively young age of the cohort. By doing so, it becomes a reference point for its future life experiences.

Representatives of the younger generation, mostly between 15 and 25, may have been particularly affected by the pandemic. This group includes adolescents at school, in puberty, gaining awareness of their independence, defining their cultural, social, and political affiliations, and forming their identities. According to Mannheim, it is during this period (what he calls the “generational position”) that the experience of the “historical event” can be particularly acute. 

How to manage terror

At the same time, I think that the idea of a Pandemic Generation is much more complex than Mannheim would imagine. A whole generation was acutely impacted by this disease that reshaped the whole world. How can we imagine the long-term impact of such a change? How can we imagine the consequences of constant contact with death? 

In the paper from 2015, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski describe their Terror Management Theory. The trio of researchers point out that there is a basic psychological conflict that would result from having survival instinct while knowing that death is inevitable and to some extent unpredictable.This conflict produces anxiety, which we cope with through a combination of escapism and “cultural beliefs”.

Among these, we can point to religious beliefs that contain an explicit proposition of “life after death”. In addition to this obvious example, the theory also points to other cultural beliefs that contain a sometimes equally strong conception of life beyond the existence of the individual. Among these, we find values associated with national identity and those related to fertility, sex, the preservation of the continuity of generations, and concerning the superiority of humans over other species. All of these are supposed to propose a symbolic immortality that the individual can seek in the collective consciousness.

The Pandemic Generation

The Terror Management Theory provides us with some clues to the future of the Pandemic Generation. The ubiquitous, constant, and drastic information regarding the deaths associated with the coronavirus pandemic may have significantly influenced the younger generation of our time. The experience of death can have long-term consequences for them and serve as a reference point in their adult life. The search for ideas that allow an individual to get rid of the fear of death may, in my opinion, be one of the leading features of the Pandemic Generation. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic had an overwhelming impact on kids and young adults. The question is: how will this impact resonate in the future? I believe we can assume that the Pandemic Generation will need their own Arc—the idea (or ideas) that will help them cope and process the trauma.

Giovannino Gabadze is a peace worker and human rights activist. Although she does not have formal education in arts, she loves to experiment with visual and audio mediums. Currently she is trying to bring art and activism together. Giovannino is a founder of series of digital collages Collage Generator that aims to promote peace in the Caucasus region.

Artworks used in this article were created by Giovannino as as a coping strategy for COVID-19 pandemic-related stress