From the August 2022 Desktop News | For most people, the events of 2020 may run together, becoming a long year of several major world events wrapped up into one another: a pandemic, a social justice movement, and more. But Drs. Margaret Peacock and Erik Peterson, both history faculty members at The University of Alabama, can pinpoint each day’s events in their new book, A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year (Boston: Beacon Press).
The book explores each day of 2020, documenting the health, political, and cultural events that took place throughout the year. What started as an idea for a primary source reader quickly turned into a diary of sorts, documenting the day as they watched it all unfold. This was largely inspired by Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts the bubonic plague’s impact on London in 1665.
“One of the things that historians do as we write books is that we try to be level-headed and as removed as possible from a situation,” Peterson said. “And there is value to that kind of book. But what you miss is the emotion, the sense of uncertainty and chaos. Historians look at events like ‘A happened, then B happened, then C…’ But when you’re living through a chaotic experience, like we did in 2020, you don’t see the sequence of events.”
Each day, Peterson and Peacock absorbed media through cable news networks, websites, and social media, capturing screenshots of articles and Tweets as they were published. As this continued, the pair realized this book wasn’t just about the COVID-19 pandemic—it was about how American society responded to it, and what that response produced.
“How one responds to an epidemic is a reflection of personal and national identity,” said Peacock. “Who are Americans? Who are we as a people, as a country? Do we rally to support each other in times of crisis, or is everyone kind of in it for themselves? The protests that broke out at the beginning, where some people wanted to lock down and some people were against lockdowns all together, were really a manifestation of that fight over identity.”
As the work progressed, Peacock and Peterson realized that the United States was experiencing more than one pandemic. America also suffered from deeper, historical sicknesses, which were revealed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the crisis of misinformation in the country, and the inability of certain populations to access viable healthcare.
While working on the book, Peacock and Peterson spent time learning from experts about the aspects of health and society that were beyond their expertise, including doctors, healthcare workers, and opioid and domestic abuse specialists that were on the front lines of the pandemic. They also conducted over 30 interviews with individuals about their day-to-day experiences during the pandemic, some of which were included in the final version of the book. But distilling this information into an interesting, readable work by two different people proved to be a challenge.
“It was like both of us drinking out of a firehose, that’s how every day started and ended,” Peterson said. “We had so much information, and putting it together was like paving a road, I think. I would cut down the trees, she would put down the pavement, I would paint the dotted lines on the street, and she’d put up the signs. It was a lot of effort, but it worked.”
Although much of their data, documents, and interviews made it in the book’s final version, more is available in an online museum dedicated to 2020. A collaboration with UA’s Digital Humanities Center, visitors can find a variety of journal entries and exhibits that support the book’s contents.
“A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year” is now available for purchase.