68.4 November 2021

Experiencing a Global Pandemic: The Power of Public Storytelling as Antenarrative in Crisis Communication

By Sweta Baniya & Chen Chen


Purpose: This article explores the role of storytelling in public spaces during the global pandemic. We explore how storytelling can be used as a powerful medium of communicating crisis and addressing injustices during the pandemic.

Method: We conducted a rhetorical analysis of the digital stories, images, and podcasts from UnCoVer Initiative in China and Nepal PhotoProject in Nepal focusing on how these stories act as an antenarrative to the dominant pandemic narrative during a crisis.

Results: We found that both platforms acted as transnational and transcultural coalitional spaces, revealing and rejecting injustices through critical and reflexive storytelling, building collective knowledge on navigating the crisis, and developing solidarity through identification.

Conclusion: Storytelling can be used not only to communicate technical information about pandemics but also as a form of resistance to reveal, reject, and replace injustices that happen during a crisis.

KEYWORDS: Storytelling, Social Justice, Digital Platforms, non-Western, COVID-19 Crisis

Practitioner’s Takeaway

This study presents non-Western and intercultural, global knowledge-making practices during a global pandemic.

Stories of activism, organizing from countries in the Global South, specifically in the case of complex problems and crises, can inform and push the field of technical communication towards more inclusive and multicultural practices.


Storytelling helps us pass down the large and small instructions for living our daily lives as each generation passes their secrets, histories, and the “how-to” survival guide mostly through oral communication or stories. With the development of writing and various modes of digital communications, storytelling has captured and shared fleeting moments through digital devices and platforms. Scholars in technical communication have paid attention to the power of storytelling in professional contexts (Danner, 2020; Jones, 2017; Jones & Walton, 2018; McNely, 2017). During a crisis, storytelling can be used to provide more contextual information and navigate the crisis. Technical and professional communication (TPC) scholars have studied creative and subversive practices of communication during public health crises through digital platforms (Ding, 2014), in various entrepreneurial and community-based organizations, contexts (Jones, 2016, 2017), and storytelling as technical communication pedagogy (Moore, 2013). In transnational and transcultural contexts, such storytelling and curating also helps construct an “antenarrative” that can “recognize, reveal, and reject” various forms of oppression and replacing them with socially just practices that account for the complexities and nuances of global crises (Ding, 2014; Jones et al., 2016; Small, 2017; Walton et al., 2019).

In non-Western contexts like Nepal and China, the public and activists have collected and curated stories regarding the global pandemic on the web, notably in two examples: Nepal PhotoProject and UnCoVer Initiative. These platforms showcase the firsthand point of view of surviving through the global pandemic in China and Nepal with resistance, collaboration, and activism via persuasive and reflexive storytelling practices. Additionally, they constitute a powerful antenarrative that not only challenged traditional notions of technical communication by valuing experiential knowledge, but also helped provide spaces for coalition building to enact social justice.

The UnCoVer Initiative started as a response to Sinophobia by sharing stories of Chinese diaspora from their critical perspectives (both original and published elsewhere to be then translated and curated) on a website built by students from the New York University Shanghai campus. Nepal PhotoProject is an Instagram account initiated in response to the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake. During COVID-19, the Nepal PhotoProject curated collaborative stories of various social activists by inviting storytellers to share their stories with the hashtag #nepalphotoproject and re-posting these crowdsourced stories. Additionally, the Nepal PhotoProject also provided fellowship to 15 visual storytellers across Nepal to document their experiences and stories in the early days of the pandemic. The stories in these two sites are crowdsourced and curated via a network of public storytellers spanning various contexts and countries, communicating information about the pandemic through personal experiences, and speaking about the effectiveness of governmental responses. This practice of storytelling coordinates both “persuasive and actionable goals” (Danner, 2020) that has helped people across national borders to navigate the pandemic and the heightened social, political, and economic injustices.

In this article, we examine how these two public oriented communication initiatives in non-Western context enact and expand the capacities of narratives in “fostering identification, facilitating reflexivity, interrogating historicity, and understanding context” of the global pandemic (Jones & Walton, 2018). They do so by creating a networked continuum via sharing stories that invite participants, environment, time, and place as active agents in the creation of ways of knowing, understanding, and relating (Legg & Sullivan, 2018). Based on our analysis of the two different digital spaces, we argue that activist work of public storytelling during crises in non-Western contexts can enact social justice through transnational and transcultural coalitional actions. In the following sections, we provide a brief literature review, followed by methods, our findings, and implications of this study.


The roles of technical communicators and activists during crises have been highlighted by scholars in the field of rhetoric, writing, and technical communication (Baniya & Potts, 2021; Ding, 2014; Frost, 2013). Grabill and Simmons (1998) have argued for a critical rhetorical approach to risk communication which critiques the one-way communication from experts or policymakers to the general public and instead, foregrounds power in risk assessment and communication processes. In turn, technical communicators serve as facilitators of increasing ethical public involvement. Attention to power dynamics in risk/crisis communication aligns with the social justice goals in the field. Here we use the definition of social justice proposed by Jones and Walton (2018) which focuses on “amplify[ing] the agency of oppressed people—those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under-resourced. Key to this definition is a collaborative, respectful approach that moves past description and exploration of social justice issues to taking action to redress inequities” (p. 242).

Studies of grassroots communications as tactical communication during crisis/risk contexts, especially in non-Western contexts, have emphasized the complexities of transnational contexts, from political, social, and cultural perspectives and responded to various challenges with ingenuity in using digital technologies and civic networks to increase access to participation in decision-making and crisis response and intervention, if not as forms of resistance and activism (Ding & Zhang, 2010; Ding, 2012; Ding, Li & Haigler, 2015; Baniya, 2020). Additionally, in a very highly critical crisis like a global pandemic, global composition and technical communication (Gonzales, forthcoming; Rice & St.Amant, 2018) should attune to local and the global digital networks that offer more nuanced understandings of risk within the local communities.

To understand transnational spaces, we see how global forces create what Appadurai (2013) called “production of localities,” via circulation of information, messages, and collective challenges, where human beings exercise their social, technical, and imaginative capacities, including the capacity for violence, warfare, and ecological selfishness (p. 66). Therefore, Ding (2013) argued that transcultural connectivity can significantly impact transnational risk policies and that nations should not be treated as cultural monoliths. Ding’s framework of transcultural risk communication “[focuses] on the circulation and transformation of risk discourses across localities via communication technologies” and “examines the interactions and negotiations between localities and larger global processes, flows, and structures” (p. 129).

At the grassroots level, mediated by social, communal, and technological networks, transnational assemblages can be created in responding to disasters/crises, by inviting more human and nonhuman actors to expand the response network and to enhance the rhetorical agency of often marginalized or oppressed populations (Baniya, 2020). Collective affect that gives rise to cyber-public activism in a transnational space is often characterized by nationalist sentiment, sense of belonging, diaspora, separation, marginalization, identity crisis, and insecurity (Wang, 2020). These affective emotions give rise to transnational assemblages, counter-public enclaves, and cyber-public activism that become a global force intervening into the systems of oppressions, injustices, and marginalization by using the power of narrative and storytelling in many spaces (Papacharissi, 2015).

Scholarship in technical communication has used the concept “antenarrative” to better interrogate and disrupt how dominant ideologies have shaped the field and to develop necessary steps toward social justice in both research and practice (Small, 2017; Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016). Boje (2001) defined antenarrative as “fragmented, non-linear, incoherent, collective, unplotted, and improper storytelling.” This kind of storytelling “is constituted out of the flow of lived experience.” Narratives can help technical communicators “foster identification, facilitate reflexivity, interrogate historicity, and understand context” (Walton & Jones, 2017). In a crisis such as COVID-19, these capacities, enacted with affect, can contribute to activism that recognize, reveal, reject, and replace the system of oppressions via an intersectional coalitional approach that brings various forces and people together (Collins, 2019; Crenshaw, 2006; Walton et al., 2019).

Stories can transmit local experiential knowledge to inform the public and provide ways to navigate and survive a crisis. Stories can shape how people perceive events and make sense of the world during a crisis (Weick, 1995) and can function as an important tool for community organizers and activists (Stone et al., 2019). During the 2016 Flint Water Crisis, Moors (2019) found that activists used storytelling as a way to confront power structures to shed light on the health crisis through the global network of social media. During COVID-19, storytelling (i.e. diaries) has been used as civic communication practices that draw from lived experiences in the epicenter (Chen & Bergholm, 2020). When challenging power structures and advocating for marginalized communities, storytelling practices can be seen as a kind of tactical communication practices, contributing to the antenarrative in a crisis context.

During a global pandemic, we must beware of the “outbreak narrative” that often leads to contradictions such as “the obsolescence and tenacity of borders, the attraction and threat of strangers, and especially the destructive and formative power of contagion” (Wald, 2008, p. 33). Oppression can happen during an outbreak when basic human rights are overshadowed by colonial, imperialistic, and nationalistic perspectives (Hesford, 2011). Across the globe we’ve seen sinophobic acts against Chinese or any Asian-looking people exemplified by terms “Wuhan virus,” “Kungfu virus,” and “China virus,” used even by nation leaders such as Donald Trump (Rogers et al., 2020). The heightened social stigma and discrimination connected to the disease against Asia diaspora in the west and African communities in China (Jia & Lu, 2021; Sastry & Zhou, 2020; Ng, 2020), caused by an “infodemic” with conspiracy theories, mixing facts, rumors, and fake news can influence policymaking about how to respond and address the disease locally (Sotgiu & Dobler, 2020).

Given this political and ideological context of the COVID-19, we especially want to focus on non-Western perspectives of storytelling because we want to enhance the field’s understanding of communication practices in non-Western contexts and to amplify non-Western perspectives (Mckoy, 2019). As argued by Baniya (forthcoming), non-Western ways of crisis management and communication are designed to challenge government norms and regulations and to offer alternative actions to better support transnational communities, considering both localization and internationalization of these communities (Agboka, 2013). As such, they often emphasize the values of community-based collective actions and communal, localized knowledge and foreground the needs of marginalized populations suffering in the process of disaster relief (Baniya, forthcoming).

These scholarly conversations are attuned to ways that oppressed or disadvantaged communities can work toward social justice goals during crises in ways that are collective and action oriented. We further contribute to this work by focusing on the roles that storytelling can play toward social justice in a crisis context. The stories analyzed here don’t follow the traditional sense of plot-based, coherent narrative but constitute a constellation of lived experiences toward an antenarrative of the COVID-19 to challenge the mainstream narrative and the power structure as well as to create exigence to strive for equity and justice.


To understand the storytelling and narrative practices developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted qualitative analysis of stories curated on two platforms from non-Western contexts: one located in China (UnCoVer Initiative) and one in Nepal (Nepal PhotoProject). The qualitative (rhetorical) analysis of the multimodal stories that consisted of blog posts, Instagram posts with pictures and stories was driven by the following questions:

  • How could the non-Western practices of storytelling inform the value of experiential knowledge in transcultural crisis/risk communication?
  • How do the activists and the public in various global non-western contexts use storytelling as an act of social justice to communicate socio-political and economic aspects of the pandemic?

Rhetorical Analysis

To conduct our qualitative analysis of the collected data, we took an approach of rhetorical analysis. This method helped us analyze two different sets of data with a common approach. We, as both non-western scholars, specifically avoided the traditional rhetorical analysis of searching for ethos, logos, and pathos. Our approach of analysis focused on being more self-reflexive towards our own methods and understanding that our data possess understanding of varied rhetorical practices across language, culture, and time; we attempted to directly address these incongruities by overcoming our own blind spots, biases, and binaries (Mao, 2013). Our analysis focused on getting deeper insight of each sample artifact. As we analyzed these stories, we let the stories speak for themselves without applying any Western-centric analytical lens. Since these two artifacts were situated in two different non-Western contexts, we took the contextual and cultural information into account such as: governmental and institutional oppressions in these two contexts, the varied social injustice issues that each artifact evokes, and finally, we purposefully avoided creating binaries when analyzing. Instead, we recognized that each platform has a different focus and method of storytelling. This recognition allowed us to seek similarities in sharing and highlighting the experiential knowledge that people impacted by the pandemic had to offer, as well as differences. Finding some similarities and understanding differences in these platforms, we purposefully decided not to implement any Western standard of rhetorical analysis.

We selected around 19 artifacts from each platform that included: blog posts from UnCoVer Initiative and Instagram posts with stories from the Nepal PhotoProject. Both platforms have a lot of stories related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to be selective of these stories targeting the first few weeks of the pandemic and then the first few months after the initial outbreak. We selected the representative sample with these four specific features that our research question demanded: (a) storytelling as the major feature, (b) COVID-19 related experiences and relief efforts, (c) activism and community building that tackled challenges of the pandemic, (d) non-Western knowledge making practices.

For our analysis, we took a grounded theory approach. Grounded theory, as articulated by Saldaña (2013) usually involves meticulous analytic attention by applying specific types of codes to data through a series of cumulative coding cycles that ultimately lead to the development of a theory—a theory “grounded” or rooted in the original data themselves. Through multiple cycles of coding, we were able to identify common themes in these data sets. The coding of artifacts from each platform was conducted separately. After each cycle of coding, we came together to compare our notes and discuss where the data was leading us. These discussions led us to get a nuanced understanding of how the non-Western rhetorical practices and values shaped these stories particularly in a global crisis. During the third cycle of coding, we combined our emergent codes that lead us to four different categories. Guided by the collective and action-oriented social justice definition (Walton, Jones, & Moore, 2019) and the capacities of narratives in technical communication (Jones & Walton, 2018), our coding attuned to practices that recognized, revealed, and rejected oppressive practices and aimed at developing coalitional practices across national borders and cultural differences. In Table 1 below, we describe and define the emergent categories, codes, and provide some data samples.


Our coding and analysis yielded four different capacities that these storytelling practices embody in response to COVID-19 in transnational and transcultural contexts. In this section, we elaborate on each of our categories and share our results.

Revealing and Rejecting Injustices Through Critical Storytelling and Reflections

Using critical storytelling and sharing reflections, the UnCoVer Initiatives and Nepal PhotoProject provide space to share stories of personal experiences, observations, critical reflections, and interrogations to challenge injustices. The stories offer political awareness and contextualize injustices that have worsened during the pandemic. These critical antenarratives can help readers question the “norm,” exposing oppressions that have taken forms of violence, sexism, racism, exploitation, marginalization, and dehumanization (Hartlep & Hensley, 2020). Using storytelling as a method of interrogation, various stories told within these two platforms amplify voices of people not represented in mainstream media. Throughout our analysis we use “amplify” in the sense that “center[s] the lived experiences and epistemologies’’ of marginalized populations, borrowed from the Amplification Rhetoric from Black/African-American rhetoric (Mckoy, 2019, p. 28).

Nepal PhotoProject curates stories from people from various strata in Nepal and abroad, often ignored by the mainstream media, Nepali government, and other non-profit organizations, using hashtags such as #storiesofpandemic #Covidresponse #storiesofmigration followed by hashtags of location such as #Nepal. One story is about a 70-year-old woman named Khatum whose life has been crippled by a lockdown in Nepal. Khatun lives on the Nepal-India border in a marginalized community and travels six kilometers daily every month to buy food so that she can save money, but due to COVID-19 it has become difficult. In the story curated in the Nepal PhotoProject on December 23, 2020 they share:

Khatun’s age makes her vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, but she says she does not have the luxury of staying at home.” Khatun is quoted as saying, “We poor people, we cannot afford to stay home and wait for the virus to pass—we need to find ways to save money so our families can survive. (Nepal Photoproject, 2020, December 23)

Khatun’s sons are abroad in Qatar, and to support her big family, she needs to make this commute. This story is one example of how the platform has curated stories from diverse places and voices from various rural communities in Nepal which have suffered due to the pandemic. These stories also highlight the more common issues of injustices in Nepal, including immigration; lack of access to health needs, education, medicine, and money; and caste-based discrimination, gender-based violence, and other forms of discrimination. These issues are persistent in Nepal through systemic violence and institutionalized domination, but the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened people’s suffering. This example fosters identification as argued by Jones and Walton (2018). As they argue, people produce and reproduce collective identity through stories that further help in persuasion in contexts such as social movements and activist organizations. By sharing Khatun’s story, Nepal PhotoProject showcases the suffering of poor people who live in between borders, whose families have immigrated, whose survival is questioned during lockdown in Nepal, and who have been ignored and never represented.

Likewise, within UnCoVer, collective reflections are also sometimes contextualized in the broader system and history of injustices. In one post, the panelists reflected upon the historical context of both racism against Chinese people in Chinatown in San Francisco during the bubonic plague, but also Chinese people’s racism against African people that can be traced back to the late Qing dynasty when China met the West and the parallel development of scientific racism in the West where China absorbed those racist ideas (Waley-Cohen, Lin, & Qiu, 2020). Regarding mask-wearing, there’s reflection on the recent historical context of China’s increased presence on the global stage and the resulting misunderstanding of China and Chinese culture as well as on the history of mask wearing dating back to the 1918 flu pandemic to help us understand mask politics now (Decillis, Xu, & Shi, 2020).

Some of the common ways that both platforms reveal and reject injustices are to expose governmental malpractices, logistical problems, discriminations, lack of access to resources at the state and community levels, as well as the racism and xenophobia that targeted a lot of Asians at the global level. For example, in UnCoVer Initiative a social worker, Guo Jing, questions the government lockdown policies:

What about sanitation workers in Wuhan who had to continue working during lockdown yet were not provided with enough PPEs? How should we deal with the logistic problems when transporting relief resources especially given the corrupted Red Cross system in China? (Guo & Xiao, 2020)

Nepal PhotoProject reposted a picture of protests from July 23, 2020 that displayed a man showcasing death and the caption read, “The battle is not won yet . . . the authorities are fast asleep, sometimes a plain nudge might not be enough . . . our dear government is dilly dallying with its petty politics and power struggle.” (Nepal PhotoProject, 2020, July 23)

Both stories questioned the inadequacies related with relief actions and showcased that the authorities who needed to act were just silent at the people’s suffering, critiquing, and resisting authorities such as the Nepali government and humanitarian organizations in China. These platforms provide a voice to people who want to openly reveal and reject injustices done by the authorities in their respective contexts. Centering the experiences of multiple-marginalized individuals helps the readers to better recognize how their daily, mundane practices contribute to the marginalization, exploitation, and powerlessness of others (Walton, Jones, & Moore, 2019).

Building Collective Knowledge via Storytelling on Navigating a Crisis

During COVID-19, misinformation has been rampant on social media sites, while the established government systems and mainstream media might be overwhelmed, especially during early stages of the outbreak. In such a situation, “the need for collective knowledge about this pandemic is critical for people to understand ways to practice family and community safety” (Baniya & Potts, 2021). Both platforms worked towards building collective knowledge by curating stories of how people are trying to navigate the pandemic in Nepal, China, and globally. This collective knowledge building was conducted by transnational collaborators and storytellers.

Both platforms became a common sharing point that curated various types of knowledge, information, and praxis about the ways people were responding to the crisis. Nepal PhotoProject’s first ever post was a public service announcement about the COVID-19 pandemic. By sharing playful images of children, they wanted to share a common message of “Control Panic.” The playful photographs, accompanied with a larger font, tried to create a calmness about the situation. There were also PSAs about the importance of social distance, other fun-filled examples of how not to panic, while some included historical images of past pandemics in Nepal. Additionally, they also shared information about stress related to the pandemic, showcasing the values of Nepali community in helping and supporting each other. These stories contextualize social inequities that reflects the important role crisis communication can play in advancing broader social justice goals by empowering people to identify the government’s inadequacy in managing the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing their political awareness which ultimately contributes to various civic networks in crisis management (Ding, Li, & Haigler, 2015).

In a story on the UnCoVer Initiative by Yuanzi (2020), the author discusses confusion about masks, policies on quarantine, and conflicting information that he received. He wrote:

I recall now that the turning point was the 23rd, the commencement of Wuhan’s lockdown. From then on there was a clearly jittery atmosphere. One could find many “horror” videos on the internet with questionable credibility: the breakdown of a medical worker, a patient collapsing in the hospital lobby, a body being carried out from a residential complex, and the voice message of a Wuhannese-speaking nurse that went viral. (Yuanzi, 2020)

While pointing out sarcastically the contrast between the government calling out “rampant rumors” and the limitations of its own action in crisis relief, Yuanzi’s (2020) story is an example of antenarrative by describing how he and his wife traveled home for the Lunar New Year, navigating impromptu roadblocks in their county and village, and their attempts to secure masks and groceries in the Huanggang city area. As Small (2017) argued, “antenarrative is woven into narrative both consciously and unconsciously and applies to both the explicit need to make sense out of situations and the implicit work of creating an organizational or community identity” (p. 240). In Yuanzi’s story, we sense the unconscious anxiety and fear, but then consciously we sense the questioning of credibility, trying to navigate the rumor territory, and being sarcastic of the current situation.

One of the major goals of both platforms during the pandemic was building collective knowledge via storytelling to help their followers navigate the crisis. These platforms used stories from the poor, vulnerable, and frontline workers to reveal and reject the social, political, and economic sufferings. In doing so, these stories also help create collective knowledge of responding to the crisis, on the frontline or under lockdown with often very miniscule details of daily life that had been disrupted due to the pandemic. For example, in one of the stories on UnCoVer about a gay couple, one of whom traveled to Wuhan as a medical nurse ((路LRH, 2020), they share:

Medical supplies in affected areas were tight. In anticipation of this battle, Xiaoyang’s hospital donated all its protective medical suits to Wuhan’s hospital. Having been told that they would receive theirs in Wuhan, no one brought any with them. They learned today, however, that the local hospital had insufficient protective equipment. Besides, no daily necessities were available, and everyone had to fend for themselves. (路LRH, 2020)

Likewise, Nepal PhotoProject also shares similar stories of the frontline workers with an image of frontline workers on Aug 18, 2020, the story says:

During the pandemic, the hospital was scrambling as they were not prepared to deal with a pandemic of this scale—there weren’t enough protective gear, or staff . . . If you work in the health sector, every day is a challenge, but this pandemic feels like a battle that never ends . . . I move between fear and acceptance now where I would rather focus on my skills and energy on handling the crisis rather than live in constant fear. (Nepal PhotoProject, 2020, August 18)

These stories share perspectives from medical workers who can undoubtedly reveal the material conditions of the frontline of the pandemic, including the shortcomings of systemic structures that failed to respond to the pandemic in effective ways. Ding (2014) argued that this form of media is guerilla media that is flexible, mobile, and accessible to and widely used by the public. Both platforms curate contextualized local, regional, and transcultural stories providing space for citizens to share their own stories in their own voice (Frost, 2013). At a time where there were many rumors and misinformation gripping the online and offline spaces, the stories helped people understand the day-to-day struggles of the frontline workers instead of seeing them only as the “heroic” workers who are working miraculously.

Developing Solidarity Through Fostering Identification and Amplifying the Voices of Marginalized People

By sharing multimodal stories, both platforms help foster identification among a larger audience to understand the complex life situations of people navigating the pandemic. As Jones and Walton (2018) argued, identification “pushes the audience and narrator toward consubstantiality, not only rhetorically, but symbolically and actionally by creating rhetorical visions” (p. 245). Using their stories and reflections to help amplify the voices of other marginalized communities, activists, scholars, students, teachers, and frontline workers could develop solidarity among communities. By justifying the experiences of marginalized communities, the platforms draw attention to possibilities for rhetorical engagement in crisis response and introduce exigences to managing crisis aftermath with social justice goals.

In Nepal PhotoProject, those justifications come in the form of detailed life stories as well as an image or sometimes a quotation, creating solidarity with all the random strangers who are evoked to use their phones to take pictures and gather stories. For example, in a story about a blind couple, posted on October 2, 2020, shares:

Man Bahadur Kunwar and Gorikala Sunar are a blind couple from Jumla. Their families had abandoned them and lived in a cowshed. They used to travel from village to village singing to earn money but could not do so during lockdown. Nepal PhotoProject covered their story in July, and a small drive has managed to raise funds for temporary relief for the couple . . . Meanwhile, the ward chief has promised to raise funds and find more sustainable solutions. (Nepal PhotoProject, 2020, October 2)

This story from Jumla, a very remote part of Nepal, is an example of how the Nepal PhotoProject created a space of fundraising, identification, and developed solidarity among various strangers as well as government officials to provide relief to this blind couple. These practices help recognize and identify injustices in issues, such as caste-based discrimination in Nepal, race-based discrimination around the globe, poverty, discrimination against disabled people, crisis of the Nepali immigrant workers, and international movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. This space further creates rhetorical engagement with social justice actors in Nepal who were protesting in the street, government officials, and people who read and share these stories. As an embodied rhetorical practice, these images can better amplify the experiences and voices of protestors and urge Instagram followers to participate in such protests (Mckoy, 2019).

In creating these engagements, this space opens the issue of historical marginalization within Nepali communities that are rooted deeply in the society, such as the issues of the Dalit community in Nepal or the Madhes community in Nepal, often not reported by the traditional media. During the time of COVID-19, people from these communities have suffered the most. We mentioned Khatun’s story in revealing such injustice in rural communities could foster identification (Nepal PhotoProject, December 23, 2020). Likewise, addressing the issue of gender-based violence in Nepal, which escalated during the time of COVID-19 with more than 3,000 reported rape cases, this platform curated series of protests by the young feminists in Nepal. Images from these communities relating to these issues may trigger emotional responses from people which help create the shared “rhetorical vision” thus contributing to solidarity (Jones & Walton, 2018).

COVID-19 stories on UnCoVer speak directly against various acts of discrimination and violence against people of Chinese and Asian descent. For example, in an interview with a Chinese American student studying at NYU Shanghai, she shared her experience of being targeted due to Sinophobia in the United States at a time when she was more likely to face Sinophobia in New York than contracting the novel coronavirus (Hoover, 2020). In this story, Maya Wang was interviewed because of her social media post where she drew a mask on her face and two red lines of tears falling from her eyes. As she said in the interview:

So, I wanted to make things a little bit more hopeful but still bring what’s serious and bring attention to the fact that this is a real crisis and we need to be compassionate to other people. That’s basically what these posts are about. I feel like the surgical mask has been a symbol for this entire movement about Chinese people wearing masks who are at the center of these racist attacks. (Hoover, 2020)

Wang’s posts could foster identification among people of Chinese/Asian diaspora across the globe and draw the audience’s attention to the violent “interpersonal injustice” during the pandemic (Ding, Li, & Haigler, 2015). The interviewer, Ryan Hoover, was also in a similar predicament. Their conversation could help audiences resonate with this unique positionality as Chinese American students with Chinese family ties, making the call for action at the end of the interview much more powerful and persuasive.

Narratives that foster identification are also often affective, highlighting the emotional and affective impacts of the pandemic and its related policies on people’s lives that could further help build solidarity. In a conversation between two Chinese feminists first published on a Chinese feminist podcast, Guo Jing, who published her pandemic Wuhan Diary, shared her feelings of “despair, scary, loss of control, a sense of helplessness” while preparing for the sudden lockdown (Guo & Xiao, 2020). On the other hand, Chinese people living abroad, like Li Yang, reported feeling disillusioned or disoriented after reading about the outbreak in China on social media (Yang, 2020). Such affective responses contribute to the transnational assemblages and counter-public enclaves that can help inspire social actions (Papacharissi, 2015).

Establishing Transnational and Transcultural Coalitional Spaces for Intersectional Thinking and Collective Actions

Storytelling invites connection and collaboration in the form of narrator and listener and gives space for both towards forming a space for collective sharing, thinking, and actions. By curating diverse perspectives and engaging in issues such as race-based discrimination, caste-based discrimination, issues of migration, joblessness, and internal discrimination during the pandemic, both platforms established transnational and transcultural spaces to challenge power structures and advocate for marginalized communities thus contributing to the antenarrative in a crisis context.

In tackling the issues of inequality and injustice, especially during COVID-19, the Nepal PhotoProject transforms its space to reach out to the transnational and transcultural communities within Nepal and beyond, inviting intersectional and collective actions from socially and politically marginalized communities. In one post, “Calling for Social Justice Warriors” on June 28, 2020, Nepal PhotoProject invites people to participate in a protest against the lack of governmental concern for COVID-19 tests:

Sudan Gurung, an activist with #EnoughisEnough campaign has a raging headache. Sudan has been on peaceful Satyagraha (protest including hunger strike) since 25 June, lobbying the government for a more effective COVID-19 pandemic management and response . . . Sudan encourages the activists to start lobbying from where they can/however they can. (Nepal Photo Project, 2020, June 28)

By amplifying the voice of the protestors and inviting people to participate in this lobby against the government, this space adapts to the needs of the storytellers, other coalitions, and the social justice activists, thus becoming a space for actions against the social injustices. Additionally, their intersectional practices are shown in how they acknowledge how the issues brought by the COVID-19 crisis have multidimensional effects on the Nepali communities within Nepal and beyond. They highlight the stories of transcultural Nepali communities abroad and within Nepal and bring attention to those who are in power and who can amplify these voices.

As we’ve shown before, UnCoVer has also curated stories that highlight the transcultural and transnational positionalities of people navigating the pandemic. In identifying social injustice issues, some stories also offer important critiques that can foster intersectional thinking. By curating stories like “Who Touched My Hair?” it invites people to reflect on problematic crisis response policies through intersectional thinking (Hou, 2020). Sharing problematic Chinese mainstream media portrayal of female medical workers, the author writes:

No matter how much it is the women’s initiative to work on the front line, the media never fails to mention that their efforts and sacrifices are approved by their boyfriends, husbands, and family members. This dissolves women’s agency at the societal level and ignores their social value, merely defining them within the familial structure. (Hou, 2020)

This critique also highlighted the contributions of female labor throughout crisis reliefs in various sectors, inspiring people to pay more attention to these issues and calling for more equitable treatment for women professionals.

Further, revealing and rejecting injustices through reflections upon personal experiences and observations also lead to cross-network collaborations to contribute to those in need directly. For example, when posting an essay “The Child in the Basement” (Joyce, 2020), the version published on UnCoVer’s account on Chinese social media platform, WeChat, would also accept “kudos” money donated to the LGBT center in Wuhan that helped HIV/AIDS patients secure medication during the lockdown.

Both platforms invite everyone to see this digital space as a coalitional space for building connections to collectively combat the social inequalities that have gripped the lives of many marginalized populations in Nepal and Chinese people worldwide. As past scholarship demonstrates, “individual whistleblowers and grassroots leaders in civic organizations played vital roles in communicating about such systemic issues of social injustices to authorities and the public” (Ding, Li, & Haigler, 2015, p. 32). Both platforms functioned as such spaces that could link various actors through persuasive and direct call for actions which aligned with the action-oriented social justice goals (Walton et al., 2019).


In this article, we’ve analyzed the UnCoVer Initiative and Nepal PhotoProject as two crowdsourcing, curating platforms that curate antenarratives of non-Western experiences related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These antenarratives showcase how the systemic and structural practices, both within the borders of Nepal and China, and transnationally, have marginalized the most vulnerable. As such, both initiatives increase social awareness of the situation by developing a storytelling infrastructure via the interconnected web of information that mobilizes the actors or the storytellers and serve as more efficient and electric word of mouth (Papacharissi, 2015). In doing so, these curators collectively reveal as well as reject the injustices by sharing lived experiences, amplifying voices, creating space for critical reflections, and by urging audiences to participate in collective rejection of such injustices. By revealing these injustices, both platforms “call for an action, investment, and coalitional move on either in the revelatory act or in act of hearing, recognizing and accepting” (Walton, Jones, & Moore, 2019, p. 140). In these networks of various transnational actors, the antenarratives “[do] not act as a thing but creates a movement of knowledge between the members of this storytelling frame” (Legg & Sullivan, 2018). This movement is collective, communal, localized, and transnationalized that foregrounds and advocates for the marginalized populations suffering through the pandemic.

Hence, by curating fragmented, non-linear, but critical and reflexive antenarratives that are different from the mainstream stories, exemplifies ways non-western communities respond to injustices exacerbated by a global pandemic in transnational spaces. These antenarratives resists the cohesive narratives and present fragments, plurivocality, that are “woven into narrative both consciously and unconsciously and applies to both the explicit need to make sense out of situations and implicit work of creating an organizational or community identity” (Small, 2017). We see the actions of building collective knowledge and developing solidarity as crucial goals and outcomes of an antenarrative during a global crisis. Taking advantage of the networked digital technologies to establish space for antenarratives reflects a socially just and community-oriented approach to crisis communication that amplifies experiences often marginalized and rendered invisible in dominant narratives of the pandemic. This interrogation showcases how social, cultural, and ideological markers could shape how people experience and respond to the pandemic similarly and differently in transnational spaces.

Examining antenarratives in transnational spaces allows researchers and practitioners to learn alternative actions to better support transnational, especially multiply-marginalized communities, taking into account the political, cultural, social, and economic contexts. Further, antenarrative allows researchers to focus on experiential knowledge which, as Jones, Moore, and Walton (2016) argued, “emboldens the field’s objectives to unabashedly embrace social justice and inclusivity as part of its core (rather than marginal or optional) narrative” (p. 212). In other words, not only is antenarrative an important methodology valuable to studying technical and professional communication in different social and political contexts, but projects like ours would contribute to the broader antenarrative of TPC, further embracing threads of TPC influenced by the humanism, sociocultural, and then later the social justice turn.

Conclusion and Implications

As shown in our article, civic intervention and risk management at the grassroots level increases people’s access to transnational risk communication networks, especially given its emphasis on emotions and cultural values (Ding, 2014). Stories and narratives serve as tools to critically examine “how stories shape the cultural logics of the workplace,” and here the logics of crisis response in various communities (Small, 2017, p. 249). The stories of lives of marginalized and vulnerable people impacted by COVID-19 not only provide space for hidden or neglected communities, but also demand identification, reflexivity, as well as the engagement of another person in recognizing these forms of injustices (Jones & Walton, 2018). Through such contextualized reflections, researchers and practitioners can develop a more critical perspective on crisis relief policies and strategies thus be more aware of how collective knowledge can be built as a social justice action.

Listening to stories shared by activists and the public allows both researchers and practitioners to understand how systematic oppressions and unruly behavior of governments contribute towards continuous marginalization and violence. Recognizing and valuing the works of these spaces are important for technical communicators, crisis managers, and disaster responders. In crisis relief practices, how can policymakers and responders work with marginalized populations to center their needs and their experiential knowledge in developing more humane ways to respond to the crisis while recognizing the disproportionate impacts of a crisis (Schoch-Spana et al., 2007)? For future research and engagements, we urge researchers and practitioners to pay attention to the grassroots and civic-community based research and crisis policy development by engaging storytelling to amplify the voices of oppressed communities.


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Dr. Sweta Baniya is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Professional and Technical Writing in the Department of English at Virginia Tech. Her research centers around transnational disaster response, non-western and feminist rhetoric, as well as community engagement. Her publications have appeared in Enculturation, Journal of Business and Technical Communications, Sparks: A 4C4Equality Journal.

Dr. Chen Chen is Assistant Professor of English at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina where she teaches first-year writing and professional and technical communication courses. She received her PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media from North Carolina State University. Her research interests include technical and professional communication in crisis contexts and pedagogical practices; how graduate students professionalize into the field of rhetoric and composition across different disciplinary spaces; and Chinese feminist rhetoric.