Thinking through a pandemic: reflections & resources from humanities and social sciences


On March 10, when the Futures Initiative team was preparing to start working remotely, I started to write a few paragraphs reflecting on the resources I have as a scholar who is interested in our collective human heritage. From my previous, recent experience of collective uncertainty and fear accompanying large-scale political repression, I had learned that reading some wide-ranging historical perspectives could be helpful to ground myself. Drawing on anthropology, political science, history, and literature, I put together a short annotated list below that I hope can help others reflect on some of the issues brought forth by the current pandemic. It includes: the fascinating history of vaccines; primers on the relationship between race, society, biology, and health; the intertwined history of sedentary human life, economy and disease; and some insights from the bubonic plague.

I am delighted that my colleague Siqi Tu, a sociologist whose expertise is on immigration to the US from China for education, joined me in this exercise. You can find her thought-provoking and insightful recommendations below, followed by mine. We have both included a variety of texts including long-form articles, reports, books, films and literature, in keeping with our tradition of public humanities and sciences. We hope that this post can provide a pause for reflection for you, and if you feel moved to do so, please feel free to share your own recommendations and thoughts in the comments.


Back in early February, a Chinese historian Luo Xin wrote on Weibo, the Chinese twitter-like social media platform, “all I have learned in this life is preparing me for this moment.” He meant that as a historian, it is his mission to understand the ongoing tragedy from all he learned about the past and documented and absorbed as much information as possible at present. As social scientists and humanists, we are always trying to find some solidity and patterns of social occurrences to make sense of it. This list, in a way, is our act of self-care, our attempt to remain sane in this extremely uncertain time and hopefully also take a step back to reflect on it rather than completely consumed by it.

Personally, I processed this event on a very different timeline from many New Yorkers: I have intensely focused on it and read everything about this pandemic since late January when it first broke out in Wuhan, China. I’ve read way too many personal tragedies, structural failures, heroic self-organized volunteer stories, and scientific accounts centered around the virus, which I tried to make sense of then, and continue to do so now. Even then, I found that, instead of getting depressed over the ongoing news around the pandemic, I need a more systemic understanding of crisis governance, epidemic, plague, public health, social welfare, and narratives around illnesses. Here are the books I read in February (which now seems ages ago) to help me make sense of the ongoing global crisis, and ones that I plan to read later. It might sound insensitive to say “everything is always changing” to someone who is currently suffering and dealing with loss, anger, grief, on both a macro- and micro-scale. I still think, this current crisis, which might be a once-in-a-life-time thing (and hopefully so) for many of us,  is not an entirely new event unprecedented in human history. Misery is always happening somewhere in the world, maybe on a smaller scale, maybe in a remote corner of the world that most of us have never been to or heard of. Now we feel it, collectively and strongly. My sincere hope is we will come out of this in more solidarity than divisiveness, in more understanding of shared human experiences than finger-pointing McCarthyism.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston: It starts off with a quite scary description of an Ebola outbreak in Nairobi, and proceeds with detailed accounts of a variation of Ebola virus emerging from a monkey house in Reston, Virginia, near DC. Helpful for understanding the global readiness of dealing with a severe outbreak and how the US system (including the military) potentially can handle it.

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry: It discusses how the Japanese bureaucracy failed to disclose information on tsunami disaster management, which cost most of the lives at Okawa Primary School. It followed up with many parents who lost their children in this tragedy for almost a decade. Very impressive journalism. I read it while trying to cope with the frustrations over the Wuhan government’s initial incompetence and failure to be transparent about the outbreak.

Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History by Jeremy Brown: It discusses the history of influenza (the common flu) and looks at the controversy over vaccinations and the federal government’s role in preparing for pandemic outbreaks.

Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag: excellent writing on victim-blaming.

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill: McNeil offers a new interpretation of world history through past pandemics ranging from the conquest of Mexico by smallpox (as much as by the Spanish), to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe. As McNeil describes, the history of disease is the history of humankind. He ends the book with a sentence that still rings true today: “infectious disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.”

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit: Solnit “used case studies of disasters – including the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 2001 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina – to argue that emergencies aren’t just moments when bad things get worse, or when people inevitably become more scared, suspicious and self-centred. Instead she foregrounded the ways in which disasters opened up human reserves of improvisation, solidarity and resolve, pockets of purpose and joy, even in the midst of loss and pain. The book was not a call to celebrate disaster – but to pay attention to the possibilities it might contain, and how it might shake us loose from old ways. In Solnit’s telling, “official” disaster responses had a tendency to muck things up by treating people as part of the problem to be managed, not an invaluable part of the solution” (Baker 2020). The Guardian article where Baker mentioned this book is also worth reading. I look forward to reading this book, not only to find some hope in a crisis but also to understand the resilient works we can do to emerge stronger from this.

Duke University Press has made a “Navigating the Threat of Pandemic Syllabus.” Listed books are free to read online until June 1, 2020, and journal articles are free until October 1.

And here is a #coronavirussyllabus: a collective work of many sociologists, started by sociologist Alondra Nelson. It includes many more suggestions on different forms of resources for understanding the current situation.


Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination: While reading Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters from her travels around the Ottoman Empire last year, I came across her account of witnessing smallpox variolation among Turkish women. It led me to the fascinating history of how she brought the idea to Europe, eventually resulting in the development of vaccines. The story itself serves as an antidote to many pernicious ideas, including Eurocentrism, the myth of the lone scientific genius, and the erasure of women’s contributions to health and medicine across the world. Read it together with the story of How an African Slave in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox with a similar method. Given our current moment, it is also worth noting here that the oldest documented practice of immunization through variolation was practiced in China.

AAA Statement on Race and AAPA Statement on Race & Racism: Discussions of illness and race often lead to conversations on biology and genetics. As an instructor who teaches introduction to cultural anthropology in the US, I almost always assign the American Anthropological Association’s statement on race as a primer to my classes. It is a short statement that addresses public misconceptions about race and genetics, while acknowledging the existence of race as a social mechanism in the past and present. I’m pairing it here with another statement on race from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, which also details how racism affects our biology, health and well-being. Sadly, we are already witnessing the disproportionate effects of the current pandemic on African-Americans and the surge in racism against people of Asian descent in the West.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States: If you are curious about some of the deep historical roots of the problems brought on by large sedentary groups of people living in close quarters, as opposed to the small-group mobility of hunter-gatherer societies, check out this book by James Scott. As you can imagine, there are plenty of accounts of early disease epidemics, brought on by large populations living in close proximity, together with an overarching analysis of coerced labor and warfare, which Scott argues was essential to humans’ transition to a sedentary life. Also great if you are into the history of food and subsistence (some of us at FI are avid cooks and bakers.) For a critique of our current food system and its relationship to disease, see Rob Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science — the author is also an alumnus of CUNY Graduate Center. For a quick glance at the past, current and future impacts of climate change on human health, see the risks and responses report put together by the World Health Organization.

The bubonic plague or “black death” is famous for all the literature and stories that it spun, as well as the social changes that it catalyzed, alongside the pain and suffering that it caused. One of my favorite accounts is Dangerous Beauty, a film adaptation of Margaret F. Rosenthal’s The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice. In this non-fiction biography, we learn the story of a Venetian courtesan and intellectual who becomes the hero of her city through her sharp insights on politics. Eventually, she is blamed for witchcraft by the church as the plague rages on. If you’re curious to read more about the relationship between gender, sexual politics and social change during the plague, check out Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Sandra Halperin also argues that the plague generated social and economic changes in parts of Europe, weakening the feudal system and empowering the peasants in the process. The plague might also have changed theatre by affecting the way in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. Finally, emerging scholarship challenges the existing history of the plague: for example, Nükhet Varlık argues that plague studies must be both interdisciplinary and non-Eurocentric, paying attention to local knowledge as well as new scientific information.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading and thinking with us! Please feel free to share your reflections and/or recommendations in the comments.


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