Bearing witness to the lived experiences of the pandemic’s essential workers

The struggle and suffering we have endured over the past year has been forever etched into our society’s consciousness and highlighted our need to share experiences.

Storytelling is a powerful act. The onset of the pandemic last March led to an outpouring of memories from the 2003 Toronto SARS epidemic, most of which had never been shared before simply because no one had ever asked. When we launched Faces of COVID on April 10, 2020, we had no idea what this would become. We only knew that there were stories waiting to be told behind the case counts we were seeing each day. Once we started asking, the floodgates opened. Since then, we’ve gathered more than 145 stories from across the globe that capture snapshots of essential workers’ experiences throughout the first and second waves of COVID.

Giving people the space to sit down, process their emotions, and reflect on them was surprisingly therapeutic in some cases. The act of sharing their stories also built solidarity among essential workers from different walks of life. They were able to see that others faced similar challenges and took solace in the fact that they were not alone.

Early in the pandemic, these stories also provided the public with a window into the unknown world of COVID-19. In a world characterized by empty streets and social distancing, storytelling brought our communities together.

In moments like this, it is paramount that we bear witness to the immense challenges and small victories of the essential workers who keep our society running.

Eventually, this pandemic will pass. The threat will fade and life will hopefully return to some semblance of normalcy. Yet, it is the unfortunate reality that we will face similar challenges in the future. When they come, we will look back on this pandemic and seek out the narratives of essential workers to reveal the world behind the data. While the pandemic has affected each of us differently, it has also brought us together with shared sentiments of courage, trust and hope. It is vital that our collective memory of these experiences does not fade with time.

By systematically collecting and archiving these stories, we hope to create an institutional memory of events for future reflection. When we look back on these stories, we will recall our shared vulnerability, the incredible sacrifices we made to protect one another, and the times when we worked together to overcome unfathomable adversity. Most of all, we will remember the acknowledgement that we are more similar than we are different.

Amid the chaos of a pandemic, stories unite us by sharing the human experience. They expose challenges and celebrate successes. They carry forward lessons about the human impact of a pandemic, and critically important knowledge derived from our lived experiences. It is our duty to bear witness, capture these stories, and pass them on to future generations, lest we forget.


See the Faces of COVID series, including both the new and original articles.

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Rishi Bansal


Rishi Bansal is a medical student at McMaster University, co-founder of the storytelling initiative Faces of COVID, and a deputy editor at Healthy Debate. He is interested in health systems leadership, advocacy, and innovation.

Arnav Agarwal


Arnav Agarwal is an internal medicine resident physician at the University of Toronto and an incoming fellow in general internal medicine at McMaster University. He has parallel interests in clinical epidemiology, narrative writing, medical education and health advocacy.

Seema Marwaha


Seema Marwaha is a general internal medicine physician, educator, researcher and journalist in Toronto.

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