The human impacts of epidemics

Samantha Price is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology who teaches Anthropology of Infectious Diseases.

As the crisis surrounding coronavirus COVID-19 continues to spread around the world and infections rise, there have been widespread effects on culture, society and the economy.

Samantha Price, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology,  teaches Anthropology of Infectious Diseases, a Level 4 course. Here, she talks about the impacts — past and present — of epidemics. (Read more of her interview below.)

Can you provide some historical context to the current coronavirus crisis?  How have epidemics such as Black Death affected culture and society?

Humans have a pretty intimate connection with microbes, infectious disease and in turn epidemics. We see human behaviour and practices contribute to epidemics, but epidemics affect individuals and cultures as well.

With the Black Death, for example, the European population was devastated and took hundreds of years to recover. Some communities couldn’t handle the numbers of dead they were dealing with, so we see the cases of mass plague pits.  These pits were not only used because they were trying to isolate the dead bodies and stop the spread of infection, but it was also a form of convenience to deal with the dead in the overwhelming situation they found themselves in.

We also see the origins of quarantine happening with the Black Death epidemic, keeping ships with goods and people in harbour for a period of time before they can come onto land.

Epidemics have also shaped the ways in which we talk about disease through history, providing us with terms like ‘plague’ that we have used to describe other epidemics.

As an anthropologist, what are you seeing now with the current  coronavirus outbreak?  What are you looking for?

When paying attention to the news and looking at coverage of the coronavirus, I look at how people are framing the epidemic, how they are talking about investigations and the individuals involved, because we have this history of thinking about and ‘othering’ people in epidemics and placing blame.

We really have to pay attention to how we’re talking about this.

With coronavirus, it’s very important that they have decided to refer to it as COVID-19 because we’re not associating a specific origin.

This contrasts with one of the more recent coronavirus outbreaks we had in 2012 that was referred to as MERS or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, which was very much identifying it with where it was happening.

What kinds of impact on modern culture do you see with a widespread epidemic such as COVID-19?

One of the biggest impacts you do see with epidemics is this complete halt in the back and forth in trade, the movement of people and travel, from the country of origin with other areas of the world.  This can affect things economically, but I think we should consider how culture itself changes the way we look at epidemics.

For example, different social media outlets that we are used to in Western culture like Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and Facebook didn’t exist when SARS happened. This has created several other places where people can discuss and gain information about these epidemics and they can pass information around, where we didn’t necessarily see that in the past.

What about the other side of social media and digital culture and dealing with misinformation?

The internet is this vast place for information which is amazing but there are so many corners of the internet where we do see a lot of misinformation happening.  For example, there are numerous conspiracy theories about how coronavirus has spread and its different origins.  Nothing has been confirmed in terms of the origin yet, but you still see that misinformation spread around.

People need to be more savvy in how they are using the internet and to think about where information is coming from.

Are we better off now in terms of dealing with infectious disease than we would have been with past epidemics?

Modern medicine has provided many methods and diagnostics we can use that can help us figure out how a virus is spread.  But we are only human and there is only so much that we know and can do.  Right now a vaccine is one of the main concerns of the research on the virus, and while we are learning more about the virus everyday, a better understanding of its characteristics and behaviour in us, its’ hosts, is required before we can develop a vaccine. Unfortunately, gaining that understanding still takes time from observing those who are first affected by the virus.

We also see that modern medical facilities can become overwhelmed with an epidemic, which was the case with coronavirus.  While they were able to build hospitals—in ten days—and treat more patients, we still need people to run these hospitals.  So even through we have modern advancement and medicine, dealing with an epidemic still comes down to how much humans themselves can handle.

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