Historians on the coronavirus pandemic #4: Pandemic narratives and the historian LA Review of Books

In https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/pandemic-narratives-and-the-historian/   Alex Langstaff, a PhD candidate at New York University convenes a roundtable with a number of international historians to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.

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?

Each of the historians comes very much from the perspective of work that they have completed previously. The historians are listed below:

Alison Bashford is Research Professor in History at the University of New South Wales Sydney. Her work connects the history of science, global history, and environmental history. Her books include Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (Columbia, 2014), Contagion, w/ Claire Hooker (2002, Routledge), and the edited volumes Quarantine (2016) and Medicine at the Border (2006).  She also wrote Imperial Hygiene: A Critique of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, which is the book that I am most familiar with amongst her work.

Simukai Chigudu is associate professor of African Politics and Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Prior to academia, he was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service. He is the author of The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, 2020).

Deborah Coen is professor in the Department of History at Yale University and chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine. Her research focuses on the modern physical and environmental sciences and on central European intellectual and cultural history. Her books include Climate in Motion (2018, Chicago) and The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (2013, Chicago).

Richard Keller is professor in the Department of History, and Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the history of European and colonial medicine, as well as public health and environmental history. His books include Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (2015, Chicago).

Julie Livingston, Silver Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2013. Her work is at the intersection of history, anthropology, and public health. Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable (2019, Duke) is her latest book.

Nayan Shah is professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. His research examines historical struggles over bodies, space and the exercise of state power from the mid-19th to the 21st century. His books include Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2001, Berkeley).

Paul Weindling is Wellcome Trust Research Professor in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University. His research covers evolution and society, public health, and human experimentation post-1800. His books include Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890–1945(2000, Oxford) and Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments (2014, Bloomsbury).

As you can see, they represent different perspectives, which comes through in their responses to the questions posed.

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