New Pandemic Journaling Project Captures People’s COVID-19 Experiences

Associate Professor of Anthropology Sarah Willen is leading an interdisciplinary collaboration to record the voices and everyday experiences of individuals living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new project launched at UConn aims to collect people's lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. (Getty Images)

A new initiative at UConn enables people in the U.S and around the world to document their own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, for themselves and for the historical record.

UConn faculty and students from across disciplines collaborated to create a journaling project that enables individuals to record their voices and experiences in a real-time COVID-19 pandemic historical archive.

The initiative launched on May 29, as the U.S. reached a grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths—and as a wave of unrest began sweeping the nation after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last week.

The Pandemic Journaling Project, led by Sarah Willen, associate professor of anthropology at UConn and director of the Research Program on Global Health and Human Rights at UConn’s Human Rights Institute, together with Katherine Mason, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, is open to people across the nation and the world.

Sarah Willen (Human Rights Institute)

The project was created by UConn faculty and students from various disciplines with two goals in mind. First, it provides a public platform where individuals can chronicle the impact of the pandemic in their lives and learn about others’ experiences. It will also help researchers study the effects of COVID-19 on different groups and communities.

“We asked our team: If you were a historian and could pre-design your archive, what would you want to find in it?” says Willen.

The idea for the project began with an email from Richard Brown, a historian and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UConn.

“My colleagues at the Human Rights Institute have been connecting by email to share our thoughts and concerns,” says Willen. “Brown sent a note to the group in mid-March and said something that really moved me. He wrote: ‘We are not often consciously thrust into HISTORY. Now we are. It is an opportunity to learn about ourselves, and our society.’”

“I had been thinking about the role of archives, and researchers, and universities in tumultuous times,” says Willen. “These words prompted me to ask: How could we provide people with tools to process and record their experience of the pandemic in their own way?”

Brown, who is now retired, continues to serve as a Gladstein Committee member for the Human Rights Institute.

On the project’s public website, weekly survey questions and journaling prompts are sent to users, and address topics such as work and finances, living circumstances, mental health, and encounters with discrimination and racism, as well as experiences of social connection, community, and the arts.

“Psychologists have found that short writing exercises can have a positive impact on mental health, especially under challenging circumstances,” Willen explains.

The project is open to anyone 18 or older, and the team hopes that members of communities hit hardest by the pandemic will choose to participate. Survey responses and journal entries will be collected in a digital data repository where researchers can begin to study them right away.

“We’re asking some demographic questions up front, which will help us learn how different groups are experiencing this time—for instance, different racial/ethnic communities, religious communities, or professional groups, like essential workers,” Willen says. She and Mason expect the current unrest will sharpen existing divides.

Participation is anonymous, and after an initial demographic questionnaire, participants are asked two questions to prompt their journal entries. For the duration of the pandemic, participants will receive an email or text message each week with a link to a few short survey items and new set of journaling questions.

Participants create their journal entries by writing, recording and uploading their voice, or submitting photos with text or audio. Each time they upload a journal entry, they can choose whether it is public or private. Each week, a sampling of public entries will be shared so participants can learn about others’ experiences. Participating will take as little as 15 minutes a week, Willen estimates.

The Pandemic Journaling Project was launched with seed funding from UConn units and external funders including the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Global Affairs, the Human Rights Institute, and a Rapid Response Grant from the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy.

When classes moved online in March 2020, Willen redesigned her special topics course on “Anthropology and the Writer’s Craft” as a lab space and incubator for the project. Questions and narrative prompts for the weekly journal entries are being developed in consultation with faculty as well as students on the project’s Advisory Board.

“Our goal is clear,” says Willen. “Usually, history is written only by the powerful. When the history of these difficult times is written, we want to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard.”


Sarah S. Willen, PhD, MPH is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, where she also directs the Research Program on Global Health & Human Rights at the Human Rights Institute. She is author or editor/co-editor of four books and over 35 articles and book chapters, including pieces in the LancetHealth and Human Rights JournalMedical Anthropology Quarterly, and Social Science and Medicine, as well as Fighting for Dignity: Migrant Lives at Israel’s Margins (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). Her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, Fulbright-Hays, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dr. Willen is Principal Investigator of ARCHES | the AmeRicans’ Conceptions of Health Equity Study, and Co-Founder of the Pandemic Journaling Project.

Katherine A. Mason, PhD, a medical anthropologist, is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University and Co-Founder of the Pandemic Journaling Project. Her first book, Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health after an Epidemic (Stanford, 2016), draws on fieldwork in southeastern China to explore the professionalization and the ethics of public health in China following the 2003 SARS epidemic. Dr. Mason is currently developing a multi-sited ethnographic study of perinatal mood disorders in the U.S. and China. Her research has been funded by the Social Science Research Council, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, U.S. Fulbright program, and Association for Asian Studies.