When Professor Louise Penner designed ENGL 268: Outbreak: On Reading Narratives of Infectious Disease, she did so before reports of COVID-19 had begun to circulate. At that time, no one could have imagined that a course on the literary, epidemiological, and historical considerations of disease outbreaks would resonate so personally with students. At the end of the semester, students used their final presentations to connect their research in the class with the realities of living through both the novel coronavirus pandemic and the epidemic of violence against black and brown bodies in 2020.
The course was developed through a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, and its innovative format and subject-matter culminated in the production of exciting student term projects. Along with primary text archival research, students wrote a paper that contrasts news coverage of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic with fictional and poetic accounts of the same events, and they also have completed an ongoing digital mapping project where cohort groups create outbreak timelines for the 1918 flu or COVID-19, focusing on a particular location. Much of what we in the US learn about the 1918 flu in journalism, fiction, and history classes comes from academic and news outlets in the West, in part because they draw from archives focused on the experience of Western nations. Students were encouraged to create archives of materials based in news and stories in those areas of the world less represented in the U.S. In the last weeks of class, each group presented their mapped timelines to the class.
Many students chose to focus on the 1918 flu outbreak and its varying global impacts. Students Cookie, Theonide, and Akkun created a timeline for the flu’s outbreak in Japan, beginning with the first documented evidence in October of 1918. Cookie focused on the economic impact, Theonide on personal accounts from medical experts, and Akkun on methods of communication and education regarding the virus. Through an interview with a family member living in Japan, one student learned that the effects of the outbreak were not mentioned to younger generations, but the practice of wearing masks in public was passed down up to the present day. “This is why I think wearing a mask is going to become the norm in the U.S., even after the pandemic,” the student said.
Another group focused on the 1918 epidemic’s effect on war-fraught Western Europe, particularly France, Italy, and Spain where news of the flu was suppressed during World War I. Students Michaela and Sophia focused on France, showing a photo of fatigued soldiers who were housed in unhygienic camps next to a pig farm, as some research has suggested that this may be the origin of the outbreak. Sophia noted that African American soldiers who were housed in segregated camps were not afflicted at the same rate as others, though the incomplete data in this area with respect to the 1918 flu has made students aware of the importance of epidemiologists today acquiring such demographic-based research for COVID-19. Student GG focused on Italy, sharing an article from 1918 that states: “wear a mask and save your life.” Prominent in her research was the lack of coverage of flu in Italy received during the outbreak, as they and others were resistant to report on the flu during the war. Salwa researched Spain, which as a neutral country in the war was the first to be able to report accurately on the virus, which is why it earned the nickname “Spanish flu,” since Spanish papers reported on its spread much more than in other European nations which censored their flu data in the interest of the war effort. Students commented on the use of racist and nationalist terminology to represent the virus occurred in 1918 as in 2020; Salwa pointed out that in Spain they called it the “French Flu,” which resonates with the current racist references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese flu.”
For another perspective on the 1918 flu outbreak, students Shruti, Oriana, and Alisa focused on Samoa, Cape Verde, and Korea with emphasis on how their status as colonized countries affected how the experience of these countries during the pandemic was depicted in 1918 era journalism and other archival sources. They all noted that it was difficult to find newspaper sources from reporters or news outlets of the colonized peoples as most sources came from their colonizers: sources for stories about flu affecting Samoa came from New Zealand, sources for flu’s impacts on Cape Verde came from Portugal, and sources for the 1918 flu in Korea came from Japan. “It takes a long time for colonizing countries to recognize the role they played in disproportionate infections and deaths in colonized countries,” Shruti observed. Class groups also focused on the 1918 flu in Canada and Mexico.
Other groups focused on the COVID-19 outbreaks focusing on such countries as Trinidad and Tobago, Albania, Australia, and Italy. Students Dominique and Melissa closed with their timeline on the effects of COVID-19 in Italy. They noted that the first case was identified on February 20th, 2020 and by April 2nd the country had confirmed over 100,000 cases and 15,000 deaths, then tracing the news reports all the way up to the present as Italy entered a second lockdown. It was powerful to see in their research the many similarities between the current pandemic and an outbreak that happened over a century ago.
While the course is concerned with historical and literary descriptions of physical diseases, there is also an emphasis on the sociopolitical results of such diseases. Students read from S. J. Watts’ Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism and considered ideas of imperial profit from disease and medicine as well as the modern study of urban epidemiology and the disproportional effects of disease and sickness on urban, low-income, and minority communities.
The focus of this course and its research has changed with the events of this year, but its value and relevance for students has never been more apparent. Through reading and research into historic outbreaks across the globe and how they disproportionately affect various ethnic groups, as well as the differences in how these outbreaks get reported, students have gained a better understanding of the realities of our current moment. In a year plagued with a sickness that has exposed the inequalities people of color face across the globe and the biases in our media, this has been a time for students to see the present for what it is: a historic moment where they can affect change.