Pandemic Narratives and the Historian

Historians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, medical history


IN APRIL 2020, we interviewed an international group of leading historians of public health, epidemics, and disaster science. Alex Langstaff (A. L.) asked them to reflect on how history is being used in coverage of COVID-19, and how they themselves are responding to the virus in their research, reading, and work life. Who gets to tell the story of epidemics? And more particularly, who gets to decide when an epidemic like COVID-19 ends? Is 1918 really the best parallel? In general, what are the historian’s tools for understanding pandemics?

[HNN Note: Those interviewed include Alison Bashford (Research Professor in History at the University of New South Wales Sydney), Simukai Chigudu (associate professor of African Politics and Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford), Deborah Coen (professor in the Department of History at Yale University and chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine), Richard Keller (professor in the Department of History, and Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), Julie Livingston (Silver Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University), Nayan Shah (professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California), and Paul Weindling (Wellcome Trust Research Professor in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University).]



A. L.: Most media coverage of COVID-19 that has included a historical dimension has focused almost entirely on the 1918 influenza pandemic. Privately, some historians have criticized this — for being inaccurate, misleading, or facilitating the exclusion of more instructive examples. What’s your view?

BASHFORD: History has hit the news more often in the last month than ever. This is a good thing for historians. It’s entirely understandable that the Spanish flu is the reference point, the epidemic benchmark. But as a historian, I think the third plague of the mid-19th to mid-20th century is productive to think with — less in terms of the era’s response to rats than to the environment and architecture. The disinfection, fumigation, wall cleaning, slum-clearing response, for better or worse, are all familiar. And although many people seek a parallel historical crisis — a similar epidemic or pandemic — in fact “quarantine” has long occurred in fairly undramatic and quotidian moments. The odd smallpox case here. Yellow fever possibly there. A ship therefore quarantined. Nobody liked it, but it was not necessarily a practice undertaken in emergency or crisis contexts. I’m keen to examine practices rather than particular crises. Rituals of fumigation and disinfection — of paper, letters, envelopes, materials — that characterized earlier and apparently stranger times have returned.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books

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