Jessica Campbell on ‘Pandemics, Past and Present’

The theme for the CSMCH’s seminar series this year is ‘crisis’. It would be remiss, then, not to address the current global crisis we face and history’s place within it. The coronavirus pandemic that has consumed 2020 has affected us all. Lockdowns, restrictions, face coverings, social and physical distancing, limits on travel, a never-ending news-stream of government announcements have all been part of a fundamental shift in the way we live, communicate and exist. Yet, whilst this ‘unprecedented’ event has forced us to get used to a ‘new normal’, what we are experiencing is not necessarily new. From the Black Death to the Plague of 1665, from the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century to the HIV/AIDs crisis of the late-twentieth, pandemics have been a recurrent and familiar feature of human history. ‘Pandemics Past and Present’, an event co-hosted with the Edinburgh Centre for Global History and History of Science, Medicine and Technology, on November 10th 2020, brought this fact into sharp relief. It also raised key questions not only about the history of pandemics, but the purpose of social scientific and historical research, and their relationship to present-day needs and concerns.

The event opened with some framing questions from the moderator, Lukas Engelmann: ‘What kind of histories do you think we need now and why do you think that is important?  Is it a turning point? What does Covid-19 mean for us as social scientists? How can history contribute to solving this crisis?’. The responses from our panellists were fascinating, insightful and thought provoking. Richard McKay argued that in this current moment we need a balance of two different types of history: the kind of history that explores the past for its own sake without concern for the present, and a kind of applied history that aims to embed historical understanding in the present; in essence, a rigorous applied history that combines curiosity with utility. Notably, McKay pointed out that there is a real need in the current for  histories that are explicitly concerned with truth claims and authenticity. Emphasising the value history could offer us in this current moment, McKay pointed out that amongst the two-hundred experts named as contributing to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ Covid-19 response, not one single historian is listed. There are plenty of physicians, scientific researchers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, statisticians – there is even an astro-physicist! But no historians. Surely historians should have a seat at the table? Indeed, by not having a historian amongst the SAGE experts, McKay argued, there is no one to illuminate the past pandemic responses we have inherited, no one to draw distinctions, and no one to highlight potential dangers. Historical insights, he points out, need to be seriously considered.

Mark Honigsbaum, concurred: why are there no historians? What historians would bring to the discussion, he argued, was historical imagination. Whilst historians can’t experiment or test data like scientific experts, they can use data from the past and historical sources to reconstruct thought processes, medical paradigms, responses, and the experience of disease, thus bringing to the table something that no other research discipline could bring. Advocating for more longue duree histories that consider long term patterns, responses and the extent of change, he notes that historians need to be engaging with the big questions.  In turn, he notes, this would help policy makers and advisers to understand the implications of past decisions, responses and management of public health in the shaping of their present-day initiatives. It would also help historians to understand more about the relationship between disease and history itself.

That’s not to say historical references have been absent from discussion about the current pandemic. In the never-ending media coverage of the ‘fake news’ generation, journalists are making constant comparisons between Covid and past epidemics, particularly the influenza outbreak of 1918. As Adia Benton pointed out, ‘how could one not talk about cholera, AIDs and other past epidemics?’ as we  grapple with managing covid-19. Benton encouraged a dynamic discussion about disease narratives. As an anthropologist, who often sits in rooms of historians, she had been pondering whether we were trying to manage the current pandemic as a narrative calculus or as a reckoning, thus prompting the question: how to we manage disease narratives?  Benton pointed to the importance of exploring issues such as the embodied experience of being sick, the enduring legacies of that sickness, the practices of the public health response and what that looks like. Arguing against narrative calculus and the reification of modelling, she asked: ‘whose story is actually being told?’.

Christos Lynteris’ reflections were especially thought-provoking. Discussing the concept of the ‘pandemic imaginary’, he argued that historians need to ‘u-think pandemics’, to stop thinking of Covid-19 or any other past epidemic as a mystery of nature, something that needs to be known, but as something that needs to be interpreted. What if, he asked, it turns out that pandemics are, in fact, meaningless? Narratives of pandemics as global catastrophes in this sense aren’t necessarily all that helpful: what is actually happening on the ground? Is the pandemic really going to prompt significant change?

‘Pandemics Past and Present’ thus offered a fruitful space in which to reconsider and re-examine  those age-old existential questions the historian has always been forced to confront: what is the purpose of history? What is the role of the historian? What kind of histories should we be writing? On reflection, perhaps the ‘covid crisis’ of 2020  is not so much a reckoning for today’s historians, but an opportunity; one that offers the chance to not only reflect upon what past might have to offer the present – particularly in times of crisis – but to actively apply those reflections and, with all that history has to offer, demand a place at the table.

Bio: Jessica Campbell is an ESRC funded PhD student in Economic and Social History. Her primary research interests lie in the social history of medicine. Her doctoral project, ‘The Healing Arts? An Examination of Creativity, Madness and Experience in British Asylum Culture c.1840-1960’ seeks to explore the themes of creativity and patient expression through a historical enquiry into the nature of alternative psychiatric therapies in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain.