The COVID-19 Crisis, New Communities, New Narratives: A Snapshot  from Turkey

By Özlem Şendeniz and Elif E. Akşit

Photo by Özlem Şendeniz

Could the COVID-19 crisis, which we currently perceive as something that belongs to the past, be an opportunity to go beyond anthropocentric thinking? Can narratives about new forms of community that complement our physical existence be constructed with animals and even with the AI via social media? This blog piece is the story of some points extracted from the online survey we conducted with a Turkish-speaking sample at the very beginning of the crisis, and the narratives that emerged around the exploratory survey. 178 survey forms were completed, there were four in-depth Whatsapp conversations and one group chat with nine people over the course of a couple of days following the questionnaire, with voluntary participants who have previously completed it. These interviews, which bordered on casual conversations with participants who were asked if we could use these dialogues in the research, focused on the meaning of the new communities formed during the COVID-19 crisis. Both the data we collected through the survey and the interviews we conducted throughout the process constituted a trendsetting exercise that allowed for an exploratory approach. Through this work, we aim to engage in a discussion about contextualizing the Pandemic as a disaster which creates new possibilities for community and/or community building. These possibilities are used for the purposes of “keeping sane” in an environment that seems out of control, sometimes by the mere act of speaking about ambiguity as one of our questionnaires revealed. “Madness,” in the sense that Burcu Alkan previously formulated in this blog (2023)[1], is never explicitly pronounced, but its opposite is formulated to keep a secure distance. The sense of self that Alkan mentions, however, is in fact forged in this space, amid the intense trauma that feels like nothingness, and the shifts in social expectations transform during isolation, moving from face-to-face interactions to digitally mediated ones. Both animals and the AI as ambiguous entities that shape social media algorithms, were formulated as safe havens in the face of trauma. Connection with real people was the aim, however, both the questionnaire and the narratives that emerged in our interviews pointed to an isolation that emphasized the non-human/AI aspect of social media -in a way “asocial media”- and resulted in a form of acceptance. 

Thus, our preliminary research suggests that the COVID-19 crisis has led many people, in their search for community amid isolation, to move away from human-centered thinking and contemplate new forms of community, such as those formed with animals and the AI. The emergence of narratives that envision and imagine new communities with non-human collectivities has the potential to advance previous research on nonhuman collectivities, such as the debate on  “animal nationalisms,” or our enmeshment with other beings which challenge anthropocentrism by focusing on non-human animal subjects involved in the construction and deconstruction of nations (Morton, 2016; Sanders, 2007; Gillespie and Narayanan, 2020: 2). Therefore, during the initial months of the global lockdown, we aimed to find out what kind of communities people joined to protect themselves from the psychological effects of the COVID-19 crisis. We were curious to see whether people felt closer to their immediate family or distant friends, or if they felt a stronger affinity for AI tools, such as the algorithms and interfaces found in apps like Whatsapp, that facilitate their connections with family and friends, or perhaps with their pets.

         To observe the trend, we conducted a pre-survey using Google Forms on April 14, 2020. Following the survey’s publication on our Facebook page, we reached out to individuals directly to engage in more in-depth discussions about it. A total of 178 people responded to the questionnaire, with nearly one-third being women. Many participants had achieved higher levels of education (37.6% held an undergraduate degree, 27.5% had a master’s degree, and 20.2% held a PhD degree). It is evident that our sample does not reflect the average demographics of Turkey, however, our aim was to target individuals with greater access to communication technologies. We subsumed these technologies under the broad rubric of AI in the questionnaire, considering AI algorithms have the potential to influence how people communicate with each other (recent popularity of ChatGPT is a case in point).

        This blog piece, supported by the preliminary questionnaire and WhatsApp dialogues with participants, primarily aims to engage in a discussion regarding narratives of new communities amid a health-related disaster. Employing purposive sampling, we conducted mixed research, encompassing both qualitative and partially quantitative methods, utilizing an exploratory approach. Through these mixed methods, we delved into the theme of alternative new communities, previously introduced in concepts like animal nationalisms (Gillespie and Narayanan, 2020: 2).

Photo by Özlem Şendeniz

Şendeniz (2018) previously posited that in rural life, the individual cannot be easily distinguishable from the tea plant, the butterfly in the tea garden, the dog in the house, the goat in the corner, the cow in the barn, and the flood that engulfs the cow. Conversely, while the urban dweller is more detached from these entities, both individually and socially, as a result of the disaster that comes with the isolation previously associated with the village, s/he is now also closer to the rural dweller. The participants, in WhatsApp dialogues, sent pictures of their pets to better connect with each other. As well as the cats and dogs, mice were pets and pictures of the cutest mouse followed. It was as if the warmth of these animals was the basis for the connections formed in the WhatsApp dialogues and in the Zoom call that followed; sharing images of pets seemed to bring the group closer through technology in the face of disaster. In this context, we should note that there has been a significant increase in pet adoption during the Pandemic compared to previous times.[2]

The Human and the City, The Virus and the Organism

The words “disaster” and “catastrophe” are used to describe unexpected events that cause many people to suffer. Like “felaketin Turkish, “catastrophe” in English, or “Στρoφη” in Greek includes a prefix that implies “rotation” and have a meaning as a deformation of the rotation, from the word of the “Kαταστροφή” (strofi-katastrofi) (Sert 2018: 117). When disaster strikes, the pattern of our daily lives breaks down. Even though people desire and insist on normality, they remember quite differently how their lives were changed by the broken wheel of fate.[3] While disaster may be perceived as an anomaly disrupting the flow of daily life, it becomes easier to recognize disaster as a normal in hindsight. Collective memory has different ways of contextualizing abnormalities in different time periods. Only in the midst of a current disaster do people begin to recall past disasters. Therefore, we view the COVID-19 outbreak in the context of past and future disasters.

Studies on memory and disasters focus mainly on human-made disasters such as wars, the Holocaust, or human impact on natural phenomena like floods and earthquakes. Since neither the individual nor the societal memories are constant and permanent, eventually, what is remembered and forgotten changes over time. At the same time, it demarcates “before” from “after”, and thus constitutes time as well as history (Kempe 2007: 330). As the outbreak continued, unsurprisingly, we began to wonder about pandemics before the COVID-19.

During the COVID-19 crisis, it was predicted that we, as a united world population, would remember our lives during the crisis once it is over. However, collective and personal memories of catastrophes tend to fade more rapidly than anticipated. This phenomenon can be attributed to the overwhelming nature of such events, making it challenging to retain vivid recollections over time. As a result, it is often observed that the memory of a particular disaster recedes from the public consciousness until a subsequent catastrophic event occurs. This pattern suggests a reactive approach to disaster remembrance, where memories are primarily triggered by the occurrence of another tragedy. The intervening period between disasters serves to diminish the salience of past events in the collective psyche, potentially leading to a sense of complacency or a false belief that such catastrophes are isolated incidents.

The narratives of connecting with pets to defeat isolation during the disaster have decreased after 2020, while those concerning AI have increased due to new developments in the AI algorithm technologies that now dominate our social media experience. While remembering our fears of sickness and death in the face of isolation makes it understandable that we want to forget about COVID-19 crisis, academic endeavors connected to social life such as this blog series, further discussions during COVID-19 crisis, and its commemoration despite our fears of remembering, still account for something. The uncomfortable narratives of finding companionship in pets during isolation, of getting closer to rural life in the midst of a pandemic exacerbated by urban problems such as overpopulation, may not seem like sweet memories in that they remind us of fears, but they are “sweet” in the sense that they also demonstrate our ability to be creative with these fears by finding comfort in pets, just as we do in rural settings.

In our work during the Pandemic, we explored where the line between abnormality and normality was drawn for people in relation to the disaster, and how this line was re-defined in relation to their communities with questions such as “Do you see the Pandemic as a disaster?” and “In times of disaster, when most daily communication takes place through social media, do you feel closer to the AI that makes these media possible?” Viruses can survive only if they can replicate within the living cells of other organisms. When human-centered lifestyles exceed the limits of life, new encounters with the limits of nature occur. New encounters with the coronavirus harbor the possibility of the formation of new communities as discussed in this essay.

In the movie Blade Runner (dir., Ridley Scott, 1982), all the animals and androids appear as frightening remnants of possession, but remain on the margins of their own story, where they share the same fate as people living in overcrowded cities. For a moment during the Pandemic, the suffering of living in similarly cramped cities and the rarity of animals went hand in hand with the increase in android life. Moreover, while both human and animal disasters are human-made, even this horrific outcome seemed to strengthen our narcissism as humans. In Blade Runner, however, it is the simultaneous artificiality and humanity of the androids that invite, or even force us to abandon human-centered thinking. The need to prove one’s humanity at least once a day through Captcha puzzles, which seems to have intensified with the increased use of the Internet, suggests that it is now humans, not androids, who have to pass the humanity test, i.e. the Turing Test. Thanks to the AI, we now find ourselves in a similar position to that which we once placed animals in. So, it seems fair to find consolation in the presence of animals, with whom we have begun to share an increasing ambiguity about which category of being we belong to – animal, human, the AI – despite the fact that we have created them.

The Times of Disaster

In our questionnaire, it became clear that space has gained a different meaning with the internet, especially with the use of social media. In the responses, we found traces of posthumanism debates that focused on new technologies in everyday life:  the internet has become a place for creating memories about the disaster. Therefore, like Stefan Herbrechter, we try to understand posthumanism and view the process of human engagement with technology as a form of cyborgization of the human.[4] In our questionnaire, we asked participants how the COVID-19 crisis influenced their daily lives. 60.7% stated that it has influenced them (34.3 % strongly agreed and 26.4 %agreed). In addition, we asked them, “Do you use social media more in your daily lives during the COVID-19 crisis?” When we analyzed the participants’ answers about their daily life routines and their social media use habits, it is clear that the intersection of the “strongly agree” result was significant for both. 

Contingency Tables
 Rise of Social Media 
Daily Life Strongly disagreeDisagreeNeutralAgreeStrongly agreeTotal
Major affect Observed 0 3 15 14 29 61 
 Percentage within row 0.0  4.9 24.6 23.0  47.5  100.0 
 Percentage within column 0.0  25.0 33.3  22.6  51.8  34.3  
Moderate affect Observed 1 3 13 21 9 47 
 Percentage within row 2.1  6.4 27.7  44.7 19.1  100.0  
 Percentage within column 33.3  25.0 28.9  33.9  16.1  26.4 
Neutral Observed 2 5 6 12 8 33 
 Percentage  within row 6.1  15.2 18.2  36.4  24.2  100.0  
 Percentage  within column 66.7  41.7  13.3 19.4  14.3  18.5  
Minor affect Observed 0 1 8 10 5 24 
 Percentage  within row 0.0  4.2 33.3  41.7 20.8  100.0  
 Percentage within column 0.0  8.3 17.8  16.1  8.9  13.5  
No affect Observed 0 0 3 5 5 13 
 Percentage  within row 0.0 0.0  23.1  38.5  38.5  100.0 
 Percentage  within column 0.0  0.0 6.7  8.1  8.9  7.3  
Total Observed 3 12 45 62 56 178 
 Percentage within row 1.7 6.7  25.3 34.8 31.5  100.0  
 Percentage  within column 100.0  100.0 100.0  100.0  100.0 100.0 
 
Table 1. Contingency table for the effects on COVID-19 crisis impacts on daily life and changes in social media habits. Jamovi, an open-source statistical software used for creating this table and conducting analysis.

Table 1 shows an exponential tendency in the relationship between social media use habits and the Pandemic’s impact on daily life routines: there is a steady increase in the use of social media from those participants who do not feel the impact of the Pandemic in their daily lives to those who feel a strong impact on their daily lives (felt no impact and experienced a strong increase in social media use by 8.9%; felt minor impact and experienced  a strong increase in social media use by 8.9%; felt neutral and experienced a strong-increase in social media use by 14.3%; felt moderate impact and experienced a strong increase in social media use by 16.1%; felt major impact and experienced a strong increase in social media use by 51.8%).

The narratives that formed around this question, combined with another one concerning being in the company of pets, revealed a fear of loneliness associated with isolation that was somehow alleviated by being close to pets as well as using social media. Communities felt safer in isolation, so the social media’s already irreplaceable centrality in everyone’s lives grew, as did the love for of pets.

Image 3 – Video conference animal, cyborg and human image created by AI, DALL-E2.

Timothy Morton points out how “advances in science are now underscoring how ‘enmeshed’ we are with other beings – from the microbes that account for roughly half the cells in our bodies to our reliance for survival on the Earth’s electromagnetic heat shield” (Morton 2013: 152). The microbe, and our enmeshment with it while avoiding it, deeply resonates with the influence of the AI on our social media use, both via algorithms and personal assistance AI apps such as Pi (which also acts as a therapist), that both converse and “cure” us while keeping us sane, and distance us further and further from “real,” face-to-face communities. While these AI apps and large language models such as ChatGPT became increasingly important towards the end of the COVID-19 crisis, the need for such companionship in isolation was already formulated by the participants of the survey at the beginning of the crisis. For example, one of our participants added to the comments on the questionnaire the importance of talking about ambiguity, an act that keeps us sane in the face of lack of control in contrast to the extremely controlling character of the Anthropocene, which, in fact, “teaches us that we can’t transcend our limitations or our reliance on other beings. We can only live with them” (Morton 2013: 152). And talking about other beings is an amazing way to live with and think about our dependence on other beings.

Table 2. The Relationship Between Feeling Close to Animals and/or Perceiving Humans as a Disaster.

The data in table 2 demonstrates a positive correlation between the presence of animal companions and the perception of humans as the cause of disasters. This correlation suggests that acknowledging and embracing our interdependence with non-human entities could potentially mitigate the anthropocentric narcissism that contributes to a cycle of recurring disasters. Anthropocentric narcissism refers to an excessive focus on human needs and desires, often to the detriment of other species and the environment. By recognizing our dependence on other beings, we can transcend this narrow perspective and foster a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness of all living things and a deeper understanding of the consequences of our actions on the environment. By making peace with our dependence on other beings, we can move beyond the self-centeredness that perpetuates environmental degradation and contributes to the occurrence of disasters.

Conclusion

The fear of disaster, combined with the fear of loneliness in the face of isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns, can be an area of carefree loneliness for the emergence of new communities that bond over social media, managed by the AI. However, the current state of constant disaster -in the face of recurring health, earthquake, drought and flood scares- demands an acknowledgement of our own helplessness and an escape from the fear of loneliness. The comment of our participant about the importance of talking about ambiguity can be regarded as a step to this acknowledgement.

A disaster seems to create its own time, serving as a milestone in the narratives of the people who have experienced it. Therefore, the past becomes a period preceding the disaster, and the present expands towards the disaster. When collectivities experience together a new perception of time, time becomes universal in a way. Biray Kolluoğlu’s study, in which she locates the İzmir Fire in 1922, as one of the formative events of the newly founded Republic of Turkey, can also be read in the same line, where the republic is a new form of community that experiences time in its own way (2002: 1-28). Could we think about disaster as a generator of a cultural revolution? Perhaps. It definitely seems to be so in the case with COVID-19 crisis, where people are rethinking disasters and the way themselves and their governments think about them. This piece itself is an endeavor for speaking about the ambiguities, and the difficulty of this act accounts for the occasional blotchiness of narratives. It stands in between academic knowledge and social media, as we discussed statistics, for example, with the participants of the survey, and is lucky to be a part of this blog series on narratives and health. The narratives we have sought to glimpse in this essay are likely to become increasingly intertwined with the AI in the near future, given the recent improvements in the AI’s linguistic skills. An unforeseen development at the time of the research, this entanglement could potentially be a groundbreaking advance or a more isolating one, time will tell. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable narratives of not being able to articulate oneself in the face of isolation, and the fear of illness and death that reinforces that isolation, is still very human.


References

Akşit, Elif E. 2018. “Doğal Felaket / Yapay Zeka: Dünyanın Sonu, Yeni Cemiyetler ve Sanat.” [Natural Disaster / Artificial Intelligence: The End of the World, New Communities and Art].  Kebikeç 45: 89-102.

Alkan, Burcu.  2023. “The Self-in-Crisis in the Contemporary Turkish Novel: A Case for the Relevance of Medical Humanities,” Trafo: Narratives Of Health and Illness: Care And Power Within, Against And Beyond Medicine,  https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49036.

Gillespie, Kathryn and Yamini Narayanan. 2020. “Animal Nationalisms: Multispecies Cultural Politics, Race, and the (Un)Making of the Settler Nation-State.” Journal of Intercultural Studies.Pp. 41:1.

Kempe, Michael. 2007. “‘Mind the Next Flood!’ Memories of Natural Disasters in Northern Germany from the Sixteenth Century to the Present.” The Medieval History Journal.10: 327–354.

Kolluoğlu, Biray. 2002. “The Play of Memory, Counter-Memory: Building Izmir on Smyrna’s Ashes.” New Perspectives on Turkey. 26: 1-28.

Morton, Timothy. 2013.  Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2016. “Frankenstein and Ecocriticism.” Pp. 143-157. in Theories and Forms, Edited by Andrew Smith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press..

Sanders, Clinton R. 2007. “Mind, Self, and Human-Animal Joint Action.” Sociological Focus 40(3): 320-336. doi: 10.1080/00380237.2007.10571313.

Sert, Özlem. 2018. “Zaman – Mekân Genişlemesi Olarak Felaketin Tarihçesi” [A Short History of Felaket (Catastrophe) as Time and Space Distanciation]. Kebikeç 45 Pp. 117-144.

Şendeniz, Özlem. 2018. “Felaketin Normalliği Hopa Sel Felaketinin Yerel Medyadan Okumak.” [Normality or Abnormality of Disaster: Reading from Local Media Hopa Flood Disaster in 2015]. Kebikeç 45:263-296.

Şendeniz, Özlem. 2018. “Geleneksel Tarımın Alacakanlığı ve Vampir Kelebeklerin Şafağı.” [Twilight of Traditional Agriculture and Dawn of Vampire Moths]. Kebikeç 46: 101-119.


Footnotes

[1] Burcu Alkan, The Self-in-Crisis in the Contemporary Turkish Novel: A Case for the Relevance of Medical Humanities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.10.2023, https://doi.org/10.58079/ut81

[2] Mona Chabali, “Pets prove to be the pandemic’s cute, furry growth area”, The Guardian, January 22, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2022/jan/21/pets-ownership-pandemic-dogs-cats. [Accessed: May, 14, 2024]

[3] In her paper, Özlem Sert establishes a connection between fate and disaster – “felek” and “felaket” in Turkish (Sert 2018).

[4] For Herbrechter posthumanism is “the technologization and and its immersion within an expanding technoculture” (Herbrechter, 2013: 35).


About the Authors

Elif Akşit

Retired as a professor from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Ankara University (was also member of Women’s Studies and Human Rights programs). Research areas: Islamic space, the history of education, history of the environment -with gender in sight. She is the founder and currently the co-editor of the journal of the Women’s Studies Center of Ankara University: Fe Journal. See http://cins.ankara.edu.tr/aksit.html. Some selected publications: “Women’s History at Crossroads: Quantification of Qualitative Data and Literary Analysis, Gender Equality, and Space in Battal Ghazi Texts,” Diyâr 4 (1), 155-172 2023, “A qualitative study on female executive pharmacists with convergent roles, ” (with others) Journal of the American Pharmacists Association 63 (2), 614-622, “Politics of decay and spatial resistance,” Social & Cultural Geography 11/4, 2010: 343-357; “Women, education, and agency, 1600–2000,” History of Education, 2013; “Harem education and heterotopic imagination” Gender and Education 23/3, 2011: 299-311; Fatma Aliye’s Stories: Ottoman Marriages Beyond the Harem, Journal of Family History, 2010 35/3: 207-218; (with Bahattin Akşit) “Shifting conceptions of science, religion, society and state in Turkey,” Middle East Critique, 19/1, 2010: 71-87. Recently completed a UN project on  “Current issues on gender studies education in Kazakhstan” with Aizhan S. Salimzhanova, described in the  Bulletin of Kazakh National Women s Teacher Training University April 2024.

Özlem Şendeniz

Özlem Şendeniz was born in 1986 in Rize. In 2019, she completed her PhD in Political Science at Ankara University with the thesis titled “Mediated Identity and Memories in Virtual Spaces: The Case of Lazish.” Her doctoral dissertation was published by İletişim Publications as “Kimdir Bu Lazlar? Laz Kimliği ve Sanal Mekânda Lazca” (2020). Some of her publications include “Sırtında Sepeti: Bafra’dan Hopa’ya Doğu Karadeniz’de Kadınlık Halleri” (2018: Phoenix Publications, with Emek Yıldırım); “Aramızda Kalmasın: Kır Kent ve Ötesinde Toplumsal Cinsiyet Panel Sunuları ve Atölye Çıktıları: Mayıs 2019/Fındıklı” (The Association for Gender Research Publishing, 2020); “Beyond the Land: Looking at the Black Sea As a Marine Environment” (2022: Gola Publications, with Fatma Genç); “Beyond Tea: From Field to Pot, Tea in Space and Memory” (2021: Gola Publications, with Fatma Genç). In 2017, she was dismissed from the university under the State of Emergency Decree Law due to being a signatory of the Peace Declaration. She actively works in civil society and continues her research in the fields of Memory, Place, Identity, Social Media, Social Movement, Gender, Ecology, Daily Life, and the Laz Language.


Ciation: Özlem Şendeniz and Elif E. Akşit, The COVID-19 Crisis, New Communities, New Narratives: A Snapshot  from Turkey, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.05.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/11o10



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Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 14. Mai). The COVID-19 Crisis, New Communities, New Narratives: A Snapshot  from Turkey. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11o10

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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