Public history project illuminates pandemics of the past

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People with masks line up on street during 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

If you find it difficult to comprehend the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Medical doctors and policymakers have inundated the public with advice on the best ways to move ahead. But according to one Wayne State University history professor, the key to moving forward may just lie in the past. 

Since April 2020, Professor Marsha Richmond has been recruiting faculty and students from across the university to help us all learn from epidemics throughout history. 

Aptly named Pandemic Perspectives, the project serves as a virtual classroom that views both the current crisis and past pandemics through a historical and sociological lens. 

Comprised of video lectures, virtual presentations, and podcasts, the project illustrates how the world dealt with pestilence and communicable illnesses in the past. With nearly a dozen modules, the project covers everything from smallpox and the Bubonic Plague to HIV/AIDS.   

A screenshot shows a small sample of Pandemic Perspectives learning modules“Historical perspectives help us better understand the world,” said Richmond. “The aim is to be able to learn from the course of past pandemics and epidemics in human history. This may shed light on and provide new insights — or a broader perspective — about our current experience.”

Sociologist and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steffi Hartwell contributed a presentation that examines the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. She describes various elements of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that mirror the current coronavirus epidemic and how we can apply what we learned from the AIDS pandemic to today’s crisis. 

"One of the most striking similarities is that both of these epidemics have revealed rampant health disparities," said Hartwell. "In both situations, underserved communities have been disproportionately affected by these communicable illnesses."  

Created to help us take a step back from the roller coaster of daily case numbers, one of the  goals of this public-facing history project is to frame the current COVID-19 pandemic in a way many may have never thought of it. 
 
“The fundamental aim of a historian is to examine the past in order to provide a perspective on events of the present,” Richmond adds. “Knowing about past pathogens, how they impacted societies, and what measures proved most effective in helping to curb their spread can be valuable.”

Support and funding for Pandemic Perspectives has come, in part, from the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies. Richmond and Allie Penn, a doctoral history student and project coordinator, plan to expand Pandemic Perspectives to incorporate undergraduate research in the future. 

If there‘s one thing historians and social scientists want you to know about the current pandemic, it’s that we’ve been here before and we will get through it. “The main thing I think history can teach us is that, although our individual lives and the world as a whole have been turned topsy-turvy in 2020, our situation is not unique,” said Richmond. “Pandemics in the past did come to an end, but it took time. In the meantime, we need to remain vigilant to help improve our own outcomes.” 

Experience the Pandemic Perspectives projects at s.wayne.edu/pandemics

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