Viral Histories: Pandemics, Health, and Power

Written by Will Lighthart ’21, History & International Relations double-major

On Wednesday, Sep. 16, the History Department hosted “History in the Headlines: Viral Histories, a Conversation about Pandemics, Health, and Power.” As a testament to the intersectional nature and broad implications of this area, the speaker panel assembled for the event featured professors from a wide array of regional and chronological concentrations. Professor Anderson discussed the evolution of health care from familial support to institutionalized health services offered by the state. For thousands of years, healthcare almost exclusively consisted of remedies offered by family and extended family. For the elite families who could afford it, one could contact an array of relatively specialized healers. After a millennium without a government creating public spaces for healthcare and devoting resources to health institutions, hospitals began to form and provide access to care, especially when one did not have family to provide care.

Professor Bittel offered analysis of the media’s portrayal of COVID-19, as well as its alleged source. According to Bittel, comparisons between COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu highlight that the United States wishes to distance itself from the origins of the pandemic, but it will likely be quick to attribute the virus’s quelling to American exceptionalism. Bittel drew on her prior research and teaching to speak on vaccine politics, noting that it is important to realize that vaccines are not immediate cures or solutions. Historically, the development and distribution are complex and difficult. Bittel also discussed the image of the “plague doctor” and discussed its popularity, despite the historical record showing that there were a variety of plague healers.

Professor Golaszewski provided valuable insight into the plague that Senegal faced at the start of the twentieth century and used that case study to offer insight into how race plays a role in formal responses to plagues and pandemics. Golaszewski noted that property destruction and coercive measures, supposedly in the name of contamination control, were political decisions not always based in science. Because pandemics represent impacts that people feel most personally – within their own bodies – it is not surprising that the protests emerged in response to these measures. Current chair of African American Studies, Professor Campbell, also focused on issues related to race but in a U.S. context. She explained that Black people have a long history of being used inhumanely and without dignity in the field of medicine. Moreover, Black people often feel the disparities of the healthcare system most strongly, while also being used as objects for medical advancement to propel a healthcare system that does not recognize the humanity of Black bodies. Campbell also discussed how Black activists, from the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter, have mobilized to try to provide healthcare for the Black community.

Speaking on the intersection between viral histories and environmental histories, Professor Woodson-Boulton explained that concepts such as habitat encroachment, driven by unmitigated urban development, has contributed to the introduction of new viruses from animals to human. COVID-19 is potentially just one result of years of environmental mismanagement. The increased interaction in the urban-wildlife interface has led to new viral outbreaks in the past, as well as environmental degradation which is currently seen most prominently in the wildfires running rampant. Woodson-Boulton also discussed the Contagious Diseases Act, which was allegedly aimed to prevent the spread of STDs to the British Navy. Woodson-Boulton used this example to illustrate her point that states use disease as an excuse to seize power. In response to this, middle-class and working-class women started a movement against the overreach, which developed into the suffrage movement.

Professor Zhang offered in-depth analysis regarding Asian “otherness,” which has resurfaced with COVID-19. One example of this is “wet market” stereotyping, which has run rampant recently. Currently, there is a gap between how Western media characterizes wet markets and how they actually are. Zhang noted that this scrutiny and stereotyping is unfair because Western farmers’ markets do not deal with the same biases and otherness. Zhang warned of how easy and dangerous it is to be swayed by rhetorical powers which choose to deflect blame by scapegoating “faraway cultures.” Professor Drummond rounded out the panel presentations by noting how the responses to pandemics are not just medical but also social, cultural, and political. For example, just as people fled cities during times of pandemics in the ancient world, so did many wealthy New Yorkers flee the city when it was hit by COVID-19.

The variety of perspectives and analysis offered by the well-versed panel sheds light on the multi-faceted nature of this pandemic. This depth of scholarly outlook is extremely informative as the LMU community tries to grapple with circumstances which continue to rapidly evolve.

You can view a recording of the panel on the History Department’s YouTube channel, where you can also find a playlist with all the summer conversations.

Viral Histories - Viral Histories: Pandemics, Health, and Power