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Pandemics Past: A Reflection from Dr. Caroline Lieffers, Associate Professor of History

Epidemics and pandemics are terrifying events. They shake up any easy understanding of dominion over nature or the social order. We are made to wait, to acknowledge that time is not our own. And in their mystery and ferocity, pandemics and epidemics press us to ask fundamental questions: How do we deal with the unknown? What are we willing to sacrifice? How do we reckon with our own mortality? The mortality of strangers? How should we love one another?

There is much evidence that pandemics can bring out the worst in people, ampli­fying fear, xenophobia, and selfishness in the guise of self-protection. Jewish people experienced egregious violence in Europe during the Black Death, while the Chinese population was scapegoated during the San Francisco plague of 1900. People experiencing poverty, without access to good housing, nutrition, and health care, also suffered disproportionately in many epidemics, and they were all too often blamed for their illnesses. We can find sobering parallels in our own society, and there is much to grieve. But pandemics past offer hopeful lessons, too. In them, we might appreciate the resilience of com­munity, the importance of the collective, and the beauty of courage and selfless­ness. And we might be inspired to act.

Milan experienced a wave of plague in the 1570s, and the city was put under a gen­eral quarantine. But Cardinal Carlo Borro­meo, knowing the importance of worship and civic connection, arranged for parish bells to ring seven times each day as a call to prayer. As musicologist Remi Chiu has noted, one group of people would chant litanies or supplications from their doors or windows, and another group would sing in response. Milan’s nearly 300,000 voices rose together in song. A commentator compared the ambiance to a cloister of religious brothers and sisters, or perhaps heavenly Jerusalem itself. Even in isola­tion, people nurtured one another’s faith.

Pandemics and epidemics have also helped people see the need for unity and charity. Commentators in the early twen­tieth century sometimes talked about “the socialism of the microbe.” Disease did not necessarily respect wealth and privilege, and some working-class activ­ists were able to get funding for improved housing and sanitation by arguing that illness in their communities put everyone at risk. Similarly, during the 1918 flu epi­demic, Canada recognized that its patch­work of private health care providers and under-resourced local health boards was not up the task of protecting the nation. The federal Department of Health was established in 1919 to help coordinate collective response to disease. Wellness is a shared project.

Courage and selflessness, too, are recur­ring themes in the history of epidemics and pandemics. In 1954, around 1.8 million children participated in the trial of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, receiving a “Polio Pioneer” card and badge for their efforts. This spirit of altruism is also famously remembered by Salk’s response to the question, “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” He answered, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” The remark­able terror of polio inspired an equally remarkable magnanimity.

Pandemics and epidemics cut deep into a society. You could say they dissect it, showing us its bones and sinews, its vulnerabilities and prejudices, its political, economic, and spiritual priorities. The strengths and weaknesses of its moral bonds. Today, we might reflect on our own communities, the importance of the collective, and the courage and selfless­ness of those who work to keep us well. And from this place of hope, we might be guided to our next acts, and ensure that COVID-19 is remembered for the ways that it compelled us to be better.


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MAPP is an international initiative to preserve and build upon the histories of lesser-known figures in 20th-century book publication.