Calling on the Humanities in the Midst of a Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has engulfed the planet, most public discourse in the United States has focused on epidemiological characteristics of the disease, the strain it has placed on global healthcare resources and supply chains, the economic devastation it has wrought, and the merits of government response. Often unnoticed in those conversations, however, are the ways that those discussions are steeped in humanistic as much as scientific terms.

Accounts of pandemics by historians and diarists from ancient times up until the present are filled with critical observations that have aided scientists in understanding the ways that particular diseases are spread, their origins, and the best ways to contain them. The ancient historian Thucydides’ first-person account of the plague of Athens in 430 BCE describes not only the severity of the disease, which killed an estimated 25% of the city’s population, but the resultant social and political effects. Nearly a millennium later, the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea traced the origins of the Black Plague back along trade routes to Asia and, in the nineteenth-century, English physician John Snow used urban geography to demonstrate that cholera was caused by contaminated water.1

Perhaps even more critical in our response to a crisis of this type and of this magnitude is the work of philosophers and religious thinkers. As Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt recently noted, “A plague…tests us in unique ways. It ruthlessly takes the measure of our values, calls into question our familiar assumptions, shines a pitiless light on our social and political and religious order.”2

It is imperative that we call upon humanistic perspectives to cope with suffering at a global scale; to make life-and-death policy choices that balance concerns about personal rights and the public good; and to raise consciousness about the social inequities that have been laid bare and heightened by this crisis. To help address these concerns, lawmakers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe have enlisted humanities scholars to inform their decision-making.3

On the personal level, the humanities also help us contend with the uncertainty, loss, and upheaval in our lives. Drawing from observations and insights handed down to us across centuries through literature, art, music, and other forms of human expression, we can contextualize and process traumatic experiences and feel empathy for the suffering of others. We also can find stellar examples of courage, endurance, and insight into what knits us together as a species.

  1. LePan, Nicholas. “Visualizing the History of Pandemics.” Visual Capitalist, March 14, 2020.
  2. Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullets: What Lucretius Taught Us About Pandemics.” The New Yorker, March 16, 2020.
  3. Matthews, David. “German Humanities Scholars Enlisted to End Coronavirus Lockdown.” Times Higher Education, April 22, 2020.

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