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The Importance of Institutional Memory

Updated on May 21, 2020
progressivist profile image

I hold a B.A. in Psychology with honors and have studied psychology for over twenty years.

The Bank Run of 1933
The Bank Run of 1933 | Source

How Institutional Memory Helped Me Survive

When the pandemic of 2020 arrived, I was prepared. Not because I had advance warning, or because I was a prepper, but because of my family history. I was born in the 1950s. My grandparents and great-aunts had all survived the pandemic of 1918; my grandparents, great-aunts, mother, and father had all survived the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II.

It was their stories of survival that gave me the knowledge that I would not only survive the pandemic of 2020 and its aftermath, but the specific skills that they had developed that had me ideally placed to weather this crisis with flying colors.

Family wearing masks during the 1918 pandemic (note the cat!)
Family wearing masks during the 1918 pandemic (note the cat!) | Source

The "Spanish Flu"

My grandparents and great-aunts were all teenagers when the waves of the so-called "Spanish Flu" swept the country and the world. They told stories at practically every family get-together, eventually, of how they survived: how they prepared and stored food, how they entertained themselves, how they cared for the sick in their family, how they earned money when everyone around them was dying.

So when news of the COVID-19 pandemic broke, I immediately took stock: food, medicine, staples, access to telephone, bank accounts, mail, and the like. I looked at my skill set: cooking, sewing, being able to write, and having enough projects to keep me occupied during long periods of isolation and boredom.

I planned out my days and projects, planned my meals weeks in advance, and took inventory of what was likely to be used up soon and need replacement. I own my own business and took a hard look at my finances and what help would be available to me, and planned for expenses for the next year: exactly how much I would need for rent, food, utilities, insurance, and other essentials.

Waiting for Relief Checks
Waiting for Relief Checks | Source

The Great Depression

All those family members, plus my mother and father, had also survived the Great Depression. Their stories of how they economized and made every mouthful of food and every cent count, and how they dealt with rationing and scarcity, fully prepared me for anything I might encounter, as long as I didn't get sick.

Their stories of the bank runs helped me have the perseverance to get through the paperwork necessary for the EIDL grant, the Paycheck Protection Program, and Unemployment Insurance. The process was long and confusing for all of these, but I remembered that my grandparents and great-aunts had waited in line for hours, so it didn't bother me that I had to try hundreds of times to complete the tasks I needed to do in order to get help. I was not only not bothered; I accepted it as part of the process, because my relatives had had trouble, too.

No food in the stores? That was okay; I could make meals out of what I had on hand and be creative with staples. I knew I was in much better shape than my older family members had ever been, and I was even able to supply some family members with things they needed.

World War II Ration Book
World War II Ration Book | Source

World War II and Rationing

Because I had heard all the stories of rationing, I knew in advance that some items would be in short supply. (I didn't expect toilet paper, but I had enough on hand to last the immediate shortage, and even gave some to friends who were running short.) I stocked up on things that would last a long time: canned and frozen foods, dried staples like rice, beans, and pasta; olive oil. I had spices on hand and plenty of experience cooking foods that would last a long time if frozen, make plenty of good leftovers, and be cheap to prepare. I expected that I would have to find workarounds for various recipes or find new way to use various foods. I even dehydrated a few fresh items (thinking back to my grandmother's stories of canning and dehydrating).

My preserved food stood me in good stead!
My preserved food stood me in good stead! | Source

My Friends Weren't Prepared

My friends are of a similar age, but their parents and other relatives did not tell them their stories because they wanted to "let kids be kids." When our county went on lockdown, my friends didn't know what supplies to buy; what avenues they could take to earn money, how to cook with what food they could find (or even how to cook at all), how to make scarce items stretch farther. They called me and talked for hours because they were bored, even with access to the internet and Netflix. They had trouble navigating the red tape for receiving help and couldn't manage to live on the financial help they did get.

Passing on your knowledge will help others!  Photo by lauramusikanski
Passing on your knowledge will help others! Photo by lauramusikanski | Source

The Difference was the Institutional Memory

The stories made all the difference between us. I was never bored; I never ran out of anything I couldn't do without; I always had plenty to eat, even when the store shelves were almost bare. I survived without Netflix, even.

I was able to weather the pandemic in good shape, because I had stories: stories of stores being bare; of killing guinea hens and lambs in the back yard; of trading ration stamps; of saving money by cooking large meals and freezing them; of eating beans for weeks on end; of doing without in dozens of small ways. I knew that if all my family members had survived such hardships, I could too, and I could draw not only on my own resourcefulness, but on their examples of ingenuity.

And that is the importance of institutional memory. Yes, the internet can tell you how to do something, but it cannot give you that personal connection of survival in tough times, or an emotional connection to survival skills you may need.

Source

Resources

While there is no real substitute for institutional memory, some of the lack can be made up by reading biographies and autobiographies of people who have survived similar situations. Newspapers from the 1918 pandemic and the Great Depression ran personal stories, too.

But the important lesson we must all learn from this crisis is that we must preserve our own memories of dealing with this pandemic to hand down to others. By passing on our stories to others, we help to prepare them for whatever crisis may come next.

Comments

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  • progressivist profile imageAUTHOR

    progressivist 

    11 months ago

    One more factor that contributed to the economic problems: the United States doesn't have universal health care. Even those with insurance can be liable for thousands in medical costs, and those without will probably have to declare bankruptcy. Time magazine did a breakdown here: https://time.com/5806312/coronavirus-treatment-cos... and a few months' worth of savings can be wiped out in a day. If a wage earner is sick, and doesn't have paid sick leave, and it takes a month or two to recover from an illness, the savings can vanish pretty quickly, especially if you need medical treatment.

    Without universal paid sick leave and universal health insurance, the United States is uniquely poised for economic collapse during a pandemic. Add to that the resistance to being told what to do, expressed by the refusal to wear masks, and we in the United States are looking at a very long road to economic recovery.

    Institutional memory, necessarily, resides mostly in our oldest members of society, and those people are the ones most vulnerable to COVID-19, so we are facing an enormous loss of this valuable resource.

  • CHRIS57 profile image

    CHRIS57 

    11 months ago from Northern Germany

    Your reply is spot on, explains what is going on inside the USA.

    What always puzzled me is how badly organized society is. There is a high degree of voluntary support necessary to keep things running. Unbelieveable for a superpower, if i may say.

    To contribute to your Corona times observations. When lockdown started in G. we went to a grocery store which was in direct neighbourhood to a Russian immigrant community in our city. The store was empty, no dairy products, no sugar, no potatoes, no flour and no baking soda.

    having seen this, we decided to go to a store of the same food chain in another quarter. This quarter close to our university is characterized by students and academics living there. In that store food products were still in the shelves, but no toilet paper, no soap, cleaning products, desifectants.

    My wife and i had a good laugh while analysing the situation. Apparently it depends on where you come from to decide what you need...

  • progressivist profile imageAUTHOR

    progressivist 

    11 months ago

    Thank you for commenting, Chris!

    There were a number of contributing factors, that separately, would perhaps not have led to catastrophic results, but the combination of these factors proved to be too much for the fragile society of the United States.

    First, there was a shortage of certain items because the supply chains and logistics were disrupted by the pandemic; so many people were sick that there weren't enough employees in some critical segments of delivery to stores.

    Second, because of the pivot in the 1980s to a service economy, people were encouraged to depend on the services of others, in order to artificially inflate the GDP and boost consumer spending to "grow the economy." This especially included restaurants, and eating at restaurants was marketed as a form of entertainment, so as a result, a number of people who are now in their 30s grew up without learning basic cooking skills. Home economics, as it was called when I was in school, was no longer taught, so the institutional memory of cooking was lost to a large degree. While recently cooking has been making a comeback, it was largely viewed as a leisure activity and not a feature of everyday life.

    As far as "keeping enough financials," the minimum wage in the U.S. is not enough to live on, and the 2008 recession wiped out the savings of many families. Additionally, it was the collapse of a number of sectors of the economy at once that triggered a crisis: as nonessential industries shut down to control the spread of the virus, many industries that depended on consumer spending (most of the GDP of the United States) collapsed, creating a domino effect. Yes, many families had a month or two of savings, but that evaporated quite quickly (we've been under lockdown in some areas for almost three months).

    Alas, the economy of the United States isn't as stable as Germany's. I've lived in both places (and others besides), so I have first-hand experience.

  • CHRIS57 profile image

    CHRIS57 

    11 months ago from Northern Germany

    Interesting story - is it really that difficult to access living essentials in the USA? Did people never learn basic cooking and housekeeping skills?

    I thought keeping enough financials in times of lay off is the most crucial task.

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