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Pandemics then & Now

Professor Ginger Smoak and Professor Nadja Durbach discuss similarities between past pandemics and COVID-19 and what we should takeaway

Looking back to the 14th century perhaps one similarity would be the fact that if you were poor or marginalized, you continued to work and live your life, putting you directly at risk of getting sick.  If you were noble and had the means to go live out on an estate in the countryside for a while and wait it out, you did.  That's what is happening in Giovanni Boccaccio's 1353 book The Decameron, for example.  A wonderfully transgressive book in many ways, it tells the story of 10 young noble adults sheltering in the Italian countryside to wait out a bout of plague in Florence, and passing the time by telling stories that are often bawdy, sometimes moral, always entertaining.  Perhaps this is akin to celebrities and the super wealthy like David Geffen admonishing people to "safe safe" from the deck of their mega yachts floating in the waters of Caribbean.
What I learn from historical pandemics is that people will adjust to the new normal and, while there will be a paradigm shift politically, economically, and socially, we will eventually recalibrate and figure out how to live a life in the shadow of disease.  Human society is good at adaptation so that we can continue to get our needs met.
As for myself, I'm motivated to keep going knowing that one day we will be back together again.  In the meantime, I feel thankful to have support to do so from the University.

- Ginger Smoak, Assistant Professor, Honors College

There are lots of continuities between past and present. I have worked on nineteenth century smallpox epidemics and resistance to compulsory vaccination. I can see lots of parallels between the general public's distrust of the government and government-associated scientists during the nineteenth century and today. How many of us will be willing to get the first coronavirus vaccine? Do we trust that the science is good? Do we trust that our government has our best interests at heart? These were the questions that stimulated the first anti-vaccination campaign in Britain that erupted in the 1850s. They are still the questions that we are asking today. Unfortunately, the racism directed at people of Asian descent is also a continuity. There was a great deal of racism during previous epidemics: in general immigrants and foreigners have consistently blamed for disease. When President Trump calls the coronavirus "the China virus," he is deploying the same kind of discourses used during earlier pandemics when Asians, Jews, Italians and other "foreigners" were blamed for importing disease into the United States.

As a cultural historian I believe that we learn much from the anxieties and fears of the past. With hindsight, it is easier to see that when people express fears that seem irrational, these can usually be traced to something much more comprehensible. When people refuse to wear a mask, they are not engaging in rational debates over public health and how disease is spread: instead they are making a statement about their identities as Americans. When people refuse to get vaccinated they are often expressing concerns about the relationship between the individual and the state. Thus instead of just dismissing anti-vaccinationists and anti-mask activists, we should seek to understand what it is that they are afraid of and how those fears should be addressed. I think that we can also learn that trust in government is essential to recovering from a pandemic. In terms of successful vaccination campaigns, persuasion and education is usually a better route to public health outcomes than compulsion.

I like structure and so I impose that on myself in order to be productive. But I also like to bake and so I have been making bread, cookies, pastries, pies, cakes, scones, muffins and other gluten-packed products. I have used 50 pounds of flour since we went into lockdown in March!

- Nadja Durbach, Professor, Department of History

Last Updated: 9/17/20