Historians on COVID

Local journalist and historian Jack Neely pictured at the receiving vault of Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee.

For the last 30 years, whenever she taught the history of disease, Susan Lawrence always asked her students about the possibility of another global pandemic. Each time she posed the question, most students said there would not be a pandemic in their age or that a vaccine would be developed before any disease could spread.

Lawrence, a historian of medicine at UT, always told her students that they shouldn’t be so sure. Now, over a year and 2.5 million deaths since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she is having a distinctive “I-told-you-so” moment.

Historians like Lawrence have been busy over the past five years, tasked with assuring eager audiences either that what they are experiencing (the Trump presidency, a pandemic, etc.) is unprecedented or that it has all happened before. With COVID-19, the American public, itching to get back to normal, has been hungry for history lessons that downplay the threat of the virus.

Lawrence says this impulse to always be matching up COVID-19 with past pandemics is unhelpful at best.

“History never repeats itself,” Lawrence said. “The conditions now, say compared with 1918, are just so vastly different that to try to do a sort of superficial comparison doesn’t really get us anywhere.”

With millions of Americans getting vaccinated every day and the end of the pandemic increasingly in sight, historians are turning towards another task, that of considering how to process this world-historical year. What will we as a society remember about this pandemic? What mark might the virus leave on the world like a scorched tree ring left by a wildfire?

There are certain themes running throughout the past year which will no doubt be the subject of future historical study. Lawrence believes the central story may be the ignorance and distrust of science both at the highest levels of governance and throughout the American public.

“I really had thought that science had more prestige, that people had more trust in science than clearly was demonstrated by leadership,” Lawrence said. “The effect of that on the American population has meant unnecessary deaths.”

One thing that sets COVID-19 apart from more devastating pandemics like the Spanish flu of 1918 is that it has not killed the young or the healthy in large numbers. When reckless college students headed to Florida for summer vacations last year touting their youth and health in the face of the virus, they had statistics on their side.

Because COVID-19 has killed mainly the elderly and those with pre-existing health problems, there has been a cynical system of political trade-offs, where personal liberty and economic stability are prioritized and widespread deaths of the elderly and the infirm are seen as inevitable.

Lawrence sees a dark irony in the disregard for rising death tolls in a nation where millions were simultaneously claiming that “all lives matter.”

“I think that people are a little bit blasé about the deaths of elderly people and the deaths of those who have pre-existing conditions,” Lawrence said. “I think we would have to get to a couple of million dead before people take this seriously.”

Another central plot line running through the tangled and ongoing story of COVID-19 is the crisis of splintered public health messaging, much of which has occurred on social media platforms.

The drastic gap between relatively strict CDC recommendations and the more relaxed situation on the ground reflects the game of telephone between scientists and the public, a game with millions of self-interested players.

The use of social media to spread both information and disinformation about the pandemic is unprecedented in the history of medicine and will complicate future historical research on COVID-19. Rather than a central system for public health messages, information has been processed and transmitted through millions of people online, and it has often conflicted with scientific research.

Lawrence says that historians will need to use the tools of so-called computational humanities to gather and synthesize communications about the public health crisis.

“Yes, there are millions of different voices, but I think there’s a finite number of themes that those voices keep repeating, and breaking those down even further by demographics, by family networks, I just think there’s going to be a lot of data crunching,” Lawrence said.

Historians and cultural archivists of the future may very well look back in disbelief on the ways in which every minute detail of the pandemic was politicized in America.

Jack Neely, a journalist and executive director of the Knoxville History Project, was surprised by the stark conservative and liberal responses to the pandemic, which were the reverse of what he might have expected.

“If you were to tell me a year or more ago that the coming pandemic would be politicized, mask or no mask, I might have guessed, well, we have a very conservative congressman who’s a proud fist-bumping germaphobe,” Neely said in an email, referencing Republican Congressman Tim Burchett. “Maybe he’s symbolic of the fact that conservatives will be conservative about the virus, especially considering that many conservatives are elderly and at high risk -- and liberals will be like hippies at Woodstock, breaking all the rules, going naked in the streets, disregarding the risks just like they disregard other risks having to do with drugs and sex, saying I won’t wear your oppressive mask. But it turned out to be the opposite.”

When considering the long-term effects of COVID-19, Neely, who has written several books on Knoxville’s history, says the pandemic has damaged the progress of the “downtown renaissance” in the city. Venues like the Mill and Mine and the Bijou Theater, as well as pubs and farmers’ markets, had become local staples before their operations were halted by the virus.

The impossibility of gathering in crowds and the new reticence to breathe recycled air has changed American public life in significant ways. It may well be that the pandemic will do for public health what 9/11 did for air travel, adding new safety infrastructure that was once considered unnecessary. For his part, Neely compares the effects of COVID-19 to those of a war.

“It’s interesting how society always changes during wars,” Neely said. “Almost everything changes, in ways that are easy to see, and in ways that have almost nothing to do with the war directly, like hairstyles and popular music and architecture. Maybe a pandemic, like a war, is a moment to stop and reassess and proceed in a slightly different direction. I suspect (COVID-19) will have an effect like that that we may not notice until a few years from now, when we look back at it.”

In the middle of a historical event, the daily life of a historian is no different than that of any other civilian. Neely had to learn how to transition the Knoxville History Project’s events away from bars, bowling alleys and bookstores and onto the ubiquitous webinar format. This involved getting a volunteer to retool his 12-year-old laptop, which he has since used to give 60 or 70 virtual presentations, by his estimate.

Perhaps the most common experience of the past year with COVID-19 and what will likely be glossed over in the history books is not the politics or the science or the social injustice of the pandemic, but rather the strange and often lonely sacrifices of daily life to make room for an invisible menace.

“This is the longest I’ve gone without walking into a bar since I was a teenager,” Neely said.

The work of remembering the pandemic will not only fall on historians who write books and teach classes, but also on museums, the vessels of public memory.

According to Claudio Gómez, the Jefferson Chapman Executive Director of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on UT’s campus, museums will play an important role in helping the public to process the anger and hurt of the pandemic. Just as with museums which commemorate war or genocide, people will come to museums to ask how the pandemic could have been avoided and who is to blame.

“Museums will be important venues to ask those questions and for people to come to try to find some answers,” Gómez said. “There will be a lot of soul searching, of course a lot of fingers pointing at each other or decision makers or whatever, and museums will be part of it.”

Gómez came to McClung last year from the National Museum of Natural History in Chile, where he served as director for over a decade. As a self-proclaimed science nerd, he has carefully borne witness to the way that both the U.S. and Chile have handled the development and distribution of the vaccine, with awe for the scientific process.

In addition to the signs, pamphlets, face masks and other ephemera of the pandemic, Gómez, an anthropologist by training, says that if he had unlimited funds, he would be most interested in procuring artifacts that will tell the story of the rapidly-produced vaccines.

“If you asked me, I would go around, collect oral histories of scientists working on the different vaccines, and I would get some of (their) equipment,” Gómez said. “For the first time, a large scale vaccine is using modified RNA to get protection from a disease. I mean, it’s like stepping on the moon, it’s no different.”

Historians on COVID

Claudio Gómez, executive director of McClung Museum for Natural History and Culture, stands among archives.

Museums may offer the public a way of processing the collective grief and anger about various aspects of the pandemic, including how science was politicized and in some cases weaponized to further personal interests. But COVID-19 has offered museums something valuable in return: a rare chance to pause and reflect.

Most museums are open six days a week with one day off for deep cleaning, reorganizing and otherwise preparing for another round of visitors. Gómez says that, by shuttering museum doors, the pandemic gave institutions time to reconsider their mission and their goals.

“Museums, regardless of their size and the size of their teams, including the volunteers and supporters, are always very very busy machines. It’s very hard to stop,” Gomez said. “Museums don’t stop much and look at themselves and their practices... what COVID-19 brought us in the museum sector in general was that pause to sort of look around, look at ourselves, look at our visitors.”

For McClung, this pause has meant renewing a commitment to featuring local artists and women artists, as well as accurately representing minority communities. The “Women’s Work” exhibit, which is currently on display until July 24, was conceptualized during the pandemic and features local East Tennessee artists like Adelia Armstrong Lutz and Mary Etta Grainger.

While the pandemic gave museums time to reflect on their mission, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent demonstrations demanding social justice laid bare the ways in which museums have historically contributed to harmful and false representations of minority groups.

Gómez says that in addition to focusing on local exhibits, McClung is working with local Native American community leaders to ensure that the museum’s decades-old permanent exhibit of Native history and culture in Tennessee is accurate and relevant.

“As long as we have options and as long as we stay relevant, and relevant means to me connected with communities, there’s always opportunities to do our job in a better way,” Gomez said. “Self-awareness, self-reflection and connection with communities around you are, I think, key for connecting.”

McClung is reopening in stages, accepting a limited number of pre-registered in-person guests from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays while continuing to expand online resources so that guests can feel safe as the pandemic wears on.

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