Epidemiologists say “if you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic”. Historians and journalists would do well to adopt the same mantra. No two diseases nor any two moments in time are the same. Different as it may be, SARS-CoV-2 is going to leave a perceptible mark on history, like other pandemics have. There is talk already of life before and life after this pandemic. Things will change, we’re told. Whether they change for the better or not, a myriad of impacts, big and small, stemming from the outbreak and the lockdown will be visible years down the line when historians look back. But what should historians do now? Can the stewards of the past contribute in meaningful ways as the disease continues to spread?
Using the past to sensationalize the present helps attract and maintain readers, I have no doubt. Disease history sells, even when we aren’t living through a pandemic. But could connecting the present outbreak to the biggest plagues on record come at a cost? No matter how casual or careless the connection, one might think repeatedly putting SARS-CoV-2 side-by-side with the great influenza or the Black Death has the capacity to do harm. Misusing history in this way might affect the mental health of millions of readers. I’d say this is all the more likely if most readers know great historical plagues only vaguely as major, world-changing events, that is, if they aren’t ready with all the stats they need to understand how ludicrous the connections are. Ties to the great plagues of old, whether they’re meant to teach something or not, could unnecessarily cause or aggravate anxiety and fear. They could help whip up panic.
This is but one example. There are many, many more. That we were told early on in the NYT to “go medieval” (11) on the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus (12), might have tipped us off that the past was going to be used carelessly in the media and that important earlier lessons, about xenophobia, racism and fixing geographic labels to pathogens for instance, were going to be ignored in COVID-19 coverage. Historians have been helping to set things straight (13), but ideally they would fact check the fact checkers, as it were, in the very same outlets and reach the same large, nonacademic audience.
(1) K. Anderson et al, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” Nature Medicine 26 (2020), pp. 450-452.
(2) R. Peckham, “COVID-19 and the anti-lessons of history” The Lancet 395 (2020), pp. P850-852, but do read A. White, “Historical linkages: epidemic threat, economic risk, and xenophobia” The Lancet 395 (2020), pp. P1250-1251, C. Ermus, “The danger of prioritizing politics and economics during the coronavirus outbreak” Washington Post 13 March 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/03/13/danger-prioritizing-politics-economics-during-coronavirus-outbreak/
(3) D. Grady, “Chicago woman is second case to be confirmed in the U.S., the C.D.C. says” NYT 25 January 2020, A8. There were 1,320 confirmed cases at the time. Perhaps it should be said that the NYT is one of only three papers I read regularly. I have yet to review my notes on the other two.
(4) D. Grady, C. Rabin, “C.D.C. imposes 2-week quarantine on evacuees from Wuhan” NYT 1 February 2020, A11.
(5) D. Grady, “Chicago woman is second case to be confirmed in the U.S., the C.D.C. says” NYT 25 January 2020, A8; D. Grady, C. Rabin, “C.D.C. imposes 2-week quarantine on evacuees from Wuhan” NYT 1 February 2020, A11; D. McNeil Jr., “Rise in cases suggests epidemic is pandemic” NYT 3 February 2020, A12; R. Rabin, “A deadly new contagion” NYT 4 February 2020, D1; A. Qin et al, “Beijing imposes extreme limits on ill in Wuhan” NYT 7 February 2020, A1; R. Gladstone, “As Chinese grapple with a new illness, an old stigma is revived” NYT 11 February 2020, A11; R. Rabin, “Warehousing patients also has its hazards” NYT 12 February 2020, A8; M. Richtel, “Getting online keeps lives on track for those in quarantine” NYT 19 February 2020, A8; R. Rabin, “Scientists study why the illness seems to be hitting men harder than women” NYT 21 February 2020, A7; F. Stockman, L. Keene, “In California, the quest for a new quarantine site sets off a rare legal battle” NYT 25 February 2020, A9; M. Osterholm and M. Olshaker, “How to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus” NYT 25 February 2020, A27; J. Goldstein and J. Mckinley, “Stockpiling supplies and working through outbreak scenarios” NYT 28 February 2020, A23; P. Krugman, “Pandemic, meet the Trump personality cult” NYT 28 February 2020, A25; D. McNeil Jr, “Censorship is never the best medicine in an epidemic” NYT 29 February 2020, A15; D. Phillipps, “U.S. military prepares plans to battle an invisible enemy” NYT 1 March 2020, A27; D. McNeill Jr., “To take on the coronavirus, go medieval on it” NYT 1 March 2020, SR3; N. Kristof, “Is this ‘the big one’?” NYT 1 March 2020, SR11.
(6) “The coronavirus goes global” The Daily 27 February 2020, 03:06-04:46. Everyone should know by now that there wasn’t much particularly ‘Spanish’ about the 1917-20 influenza pandemic other than that in the West it was reported early on in Spain, a neutral country in WWI and without wartime censorship.
(7) L. Mordechai et al, “The Justinianic plague: an inconsequential pandemic?” PNAS 116 (2019), pp. 25546-25554; N. Varık, Plague and empire in the early modern Mediterranean world: the Ottoman experience, 1347-1600 (CUP, 2015); M. Green, “Putting Africa on the Black Death map: narratives from genetics and history” Afriques 9 (2018), doi.org/10.4000/afriques.2125; T. Brook, Great state: China and the world (Profile Books Ltd, 2019); H. Barker, “Laying the corpses to rest: grain embargoes and the early transmission of the Black Death in the Black Sea, 1346-1347” Speculum, forthcoming.
(8) D. McNeil Jr, “Rise in cases suggests epidemic is pandemic” NYT 3 February 2020, A12; idem, “What the next year (or two) may look like” NYT 19 April 2020, A1. J. Corum and C. Zimmer, “How coronavirus mutates and spreads” NYT 30 April 2020 should be read alongside N. Grubaugh et al, “We shouldn’t worry when a virus mutates during disease outbreaks” Nature Microbiology 5 (2020), pp. 529-530. The inclusion of the remarks of Dr. S. Bell in C. Zimmer, “On the trail of New York’s Covid-19 cases” NYT 14 April 2020, D7, is to be noted.
(9) C. Zimmer, “2 scenarios for Covid-19: best and worst” NYT 22 March 2020, SR2.
(10) J. Katz, “Could coronavirus cause as many deaths as cancer in the U.S.? Putting estimates in context” NYT 16 March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/16/upshot/coronavirus-best-worst-death-toll-scenario.html)
(11) D. McNeill Jr., “To take on the coronavirus, go medieval on it” NYT 1 March 2020, SR3.
(12) In late January and early February, the NYT referred to “Wuhan virus”, “Wuhan coronavirus”, “Wuhan strain,”, “Chinese virus”, “China virus” in no fewer than 17 articles: R. Rabin, “First patient with the mysterious illness is identified in the U.S.” NYT 22 January 2020, A10; D. Grady, “As new virus spreads from China, specialists see grim reminders” NYT 23 January 2020, A8; A. Qin and V. Wang, “China closes off city at center of virus outbreak” NYT 23 January 2020, A1; Y. Huang, “Is China setting itself up for another epidemic?” NYT 23 January 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/opinion/coronavirus-china-wuhan.html; M. Baker, “Texas student is monitored after a trip” NYT 24 January 2020, A7; D. Grady, “Chicago woman is second case to be confirmed in the U.S., the C.D.C. says” NYT 25 January 2020, A8; M. Baker and J. Singer, “Chinese-Americans feel glare and rush to help” NYT 25 January 2020, A8; J. Gorman, “They are mammals, they fly and they host pathogens” NYT 29 January 2020, A7; R. Rabin, “Beijing says expert teams are welcome” NYT 29 January 2020, A7; D. Grady, “Outside China, racing to halt virus’s spread” NYT 30 January 2020, A1; A. Stevenson, “Borders sealed and flights banned as world works to contain virus” NYT 2 February 2020, A11; D. McNeil Jr., “Rise in cases suggests epidemic is pandemic” NYT 3 February 2020, A12; R. Rabin, “A deadly new contagion” NYT 4 February 2020, D1; R. Rabin, “Experts fear patients spreading virus even without signs of symptoms” NYT 5 February 2020, A9; C. Krauss, “Virus threatens an oil industry that’s already ailing” NYT 5 February 2020, B1; A. Harmon, “Inside the race to contain America’s first confirmed case” NYT 6 February 2020, A6; C. Buckley, “Whistle-blower on China virus succumbs to it” NYT 7 February 2020, A1. But also see: M. Rich, “Virus fuels anti-Chinese sentiment overseas” NYT 31 January 2020, A1, and notably, L. Yi-Zheng, “The coronavirus and ‘jinbu’ foods” NYT 23 February 2020, SR2. For an earlier “China virus” in the NYT: A. Jacobs, “China virus kills 22 and sickens thousands” NYT 3 May 2008, A6.
(13) A few examples: J. Crawshaw, “Quarantine – an early modern approach” History & Policy 12 March 2020, http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/quarantine-an-early-modern-approach; M. Bresalier, “Covid-19 and the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’: differences give us a measure of hope” History & Policy 2 April 2020; M. Zuk and S. Jones, “Covid-19 is not your great-grandfather’s flu – comparisons with 1918 are overblown” Greenly Tribune 23 April 2020 https://www.greeleytribune.com/opinion/marlene-zuk-and-susan-d-jones-covid-19-is-not-your-great-grandfathers-flu-comparisons-with-1918-are-overblown/; G. Geltner, “Getting medieval on Covid? The risks of periodizing public health” History News Network 29 March 2020, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/174758; N. Varlık with C. Horn, “Covid-10 impact: the history of plague and contagion” University of South Carolina, https://www.sc.edu/uofsc/posts/2020/03/covid_impact_nukhet_varlik.php#.Xrne9yMrJjc; T. Brook, “Blame China? Outbreak orientalis, from the plague to coronavirus” The Globe and Mail 13 February 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-outbreak-orientalism-from-the-plague-to-coronavirus-why-is-the-west/; A. Heinrich, “Before coronavirus, China was falsely blamed for spreading smallpox. Racism played a role then, too” The Conversation 6 May 2020, https://theconversation.com/before-coronavirus-china-was-falsely-blamed-for-spreading-smallpox-racism-played-a-role-then-too-137884. Cf. G. Kolata, “Coronavirus is very different from the Spanish flu of 1918. Here’s how” NYT 9 March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/09/health/coronavirus-is-very-different-from-the-spanish-flu-of-1918-heres-how.html/