During Epidemics, Media (and now Social Media) have Always Helped People to ConnectRoundup
tags: Mail, media, epidemics, communications, 18th century, yellow fever
David Paul Nord is professor emeritus of journalism and adjunct professor emeritus of history at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Schoolchildren and their teachers sharing lessons on Canvas. College students scattered worldwide attending classes on Zoom. Self-isolating friends watching movies together on Netflix Party. Grandmothers reading bedtime stories on FaceTime. Preachers live-streaming church services on Facebook. Comedians and musicians on YouTube. Doctors on Twitter and TikTok. Scammers and hucksters on … well, just about every medium. And everyone watching and reading the news. Surely there has never been another time of quarantine, isolation and social distancing so thoroughly drenched in communication.
But although the communication milieu of the coronavirus pandemic is astonishing, it is not entirely new. For several hundred years, people have used media — reading, writing and print — to maintain human contact and community in times of epidemic disease, when physical contact becomes suddenly taboo. A striking example happened during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. During that crisis, people wrote countless letters, notes and diary entries. They also turned to print, especially the Federal Gazette, the only local newspaper that continued to publish daily during the epidemic.
As a fierce debate broke out about whether the job of newspapers was to amplify the voices of authority or to share the voices of everyone in a virtual open forum, the yellow fever epidemic revealed something that still holds true today: Communication forums, despite their many flaws, nourish real community in moments of lockdown.