All posts by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D.

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff and affiliates of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the first, second, and third posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following post is written by Heather Martin, Librarian for African and African American Studies.

Where do you begin when writing a blog post about global pandemics in Africa –the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, containing over 60 sovereign states that claim to govern speakers of somewhere between 1200 and 3000 different languages?  And how do you choose from the many infectious diseases that have ebbed and flowed across the face of the continent over its millenia-long history?  If an undergraduate student came to me with such a broad topic for a term paper, I would advise them to focus their idea. Then I would work to help them come up with a topic that is still interesting, but much more manageable with the resources at hand.  That is why I have chosen to write a blog post about the effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Africa: a much more historically-delimited topic, which has received less scholarly attention (and is, therefore, of potential interest to other researchers); and a topic that can be addressed with multiple Africa-related print and online source available at Duke Libraries (and, is therefore, do-able).

To begin, it is necessary to point out that English-language academic monographs on the “Spanish flu” in Africa are practically nonexistent, possibly due to the challenges of conducting research of the scope necessary to produce a truly pan-African study.  Even scholarly journal articles about the topic typically have a narrow focus related to one aspect of the pandemic in a single country or geographic region of the continent. For example, K. David Patterson’s 1995 study of “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in the Gold Coast,” which was published in Transactions of the Ghana Historical Society (and is made available to Duke students, faculty, and staff via Duke Libraries’ subscription to JSTOR), focuses on the way the pandemic affected different socio-economic classes within the borders of that specific nation-state. But, as we all know by now, global pandemics respect no internationally-agreed-upon boundaries.

In order to get any sort of insight into how the 1918 influenza pandemic impacted multiple African countries, we need to turn to a working paper written by Jan-Bart Gewald, Professor of African History and Director of the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands.  In an open-access publication entitled Spanish Influenza in Africa: Some Comments Regarding Source Material and Future Research (also available in print at Duke Libraries), Gewald “first draws attention to the social impact of Spanish flu in Africa” by reviewing articles that cover South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia. He then illustrates how the British Colonial Office records available in the National Archives can expand on previous scholarship. For example, he uses the records to pinpoint the introduction of influenza into Sierra Leone via the warship H.M.S. Mantua, which docked in Freetown in August 1918. Workers who transferred coal to the ship became ill and the disease spread from there.  Finally, Gewald taps the Colonial Office records to provide insight on the influenza pandemic in Gambia and Nigeria as well.  Thanks to Duke Libraries’ paid subscription to Confidential Print: Africa, 1834-1966, a research database that provides access to the United Kingdom’s Colonial, Dominion and Foreign Offices’ confidential correspondence relating to Africa, patrons who wish to pursue the line of research mapped out by Gewald can examine these very same colonial records for themselves.

British colonial records provide one type of primary source about the influenza epidemic in Africa.  Another are the first person, eyewitness accounts by survivors, such as those collected in Howard Phillips’ In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish’ Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa.  These recorded interviews of 127 South African survivors of ‘Black October’—so called because the flu epidemic claimed some 350,000 lives (or 5% of the population of South Africa) in six weeks in September-October of 1918—provide unique, intimate, first-hand accounts of what these men and women saw and heard, how they coped medically, materially and psychologically and what mark this experience left on their lives.

However, in order to form a complete picture of what happened in Africa at the time of the flu epdemic, it is not enough to focus on the records left by colonial administrators and white settlers.  It is also imperative to identify and utilize primary sources from indigenous Black Africans.  For example, in an article entitled “Global Explanations versus Local Interpretations: The Historiography of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Africa,” from the journal History in Africa (available via Duke Libraries’ subscription to Project Muse), Matthew Heaton and Toyin Falola stress the importance of oral histories from indigenous Black Africans as an underutilized source base for countering the standard narrative about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which simply assumes that the Spanish flu in Africa followed the same course as it did in other countries.  Getting access to indigenous African oral histories is another question, however.  Luckily, a classic introduction to The Oral Literature in Africa, by Ruth Finnegan, is now available freely online thanks to Open Source Publishers.  The book’s bibliography includes a section on web-based reference material, with links to international scholarly organizations that hold recordings of original African stories and songs.

Although it cannot serve as a substitute for a primary source like an eyewitness account or a colonial government report, works of fiction written by Africans about the African experience is one way that readers can get a sense of what it may have felt like to be there.  For example, in Elechi Amadi’s novel, The Great Ponds (1969), the influenza pandemic of 1918 serves as a silent backdrop to the story of two native African villages that go to war, resort to kidnapping, and rely on religious ritual in a fight over fishing rights to a disputed pond.  While this story is not based on a documented historical incident, Amadi draws from oral traditions that form the collective memory of Nigerians’ experiences with the influenza pandemic.

Amadi’s novel is frequently cited as an example of African and indigenous experiences of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There are brief references to “slave raiders” of the past and to “trading with white men,” but the narrative focuses on the people of the rival villages and how their fight over ownership of a pond is minimized when influenza, which they call wonjo, ravages their area, causing mass death regardless of clan or village affiliation. In contrast to the British colonial records, The Great Ponds presents a more personal view of life leading up to the influenza outbreak in Africa.  As is the case with other great works of literature, its truth-value cannot be judged by the same standards as the works produced by professional historians.  Amadi’s novel strives for something both more local and more universal.  It is up to each individual reader to decide whether the author succeeds in achieving his goal.

 

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 3

This is the third in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the first and second posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following blog post is contributed by Carson Holloway, Librarian for History of Science and Technology, Military History, British and Irish Studies, Canadian Studies and General History. 

Until COVID-19’s arrival in the United States, Ebola, SARS, MERS, and Zika seemed like diseases of the ‘developing,’ ‘under-governed,’ and ‘less sanitary’ parts for the world.  Surely, none of these strange and exotic viruses could ever find a home here, on the soil of the sole remaining superpower, the 20th-century heir of earlier empires on which the sun never set.  The residents of late-seventeenth-century London—at the time, the bustling capitol of an up-and-coming maritime power, one that would eventually reach a territorial size larger than any other empire in history—undoubtedly would have agreed with such an assessment of the situation.  Deadly tropical diseases afflicted British colonies, not the metropole; and the bubonic plague was a relic of Europe’s ‘dark ages,’ not its enlightened present.  Although London did experience sporadic outbreaks of the plague earlier in the century, the residents of the City had been lulled into a false sense of complacency.  So it must have come as a great shock when, in the winter of 1665, the Plague re-appeared in the City.

In their engrossing account of what has come to be known as The Great Plague of London, historian A. Lloyd Moote and microbiologist Dorothy C. Moote estimate that between 1665 and 1666, the bubonic plague killed nearly 100,000 city-dwellers, or almost one third of those who did not flee to the countryside.  Those urban residents who remained in the City, however, did not panic or put themselves under quarantine.  Instead, they continued to fulfill their duties and obligations, keeping as many medical, religious, legal, and business establishments open as long as they possibly could, seemingly unaware that their very activity helped to spread the disease.  By using intimate letters and private diaries, and focusing on the personal experience of specific individuals, from all walks-of-life, the Mootes succeed in painting a compelling portrait of an early-modern city—the capitol of the British Empire—dealing (successfully, but at tremendous cost) with an outbreak of a deadly infectious disease.

Although the current COVID-19 crisis has limited our access to the Duke Library stacks, there are many resources, which can help fill the needs of students and researchers interested in learning more about London’s Great Plague.  Primary sources from the period are relatively scarce.  In 1665 there were no printed newspapers as we have come to know them; rather, information about the plague was spread by personal letter or by word-of-mouth, and, less often, by such ephemeral publications as broadsides or pamphlets.  Fortunately, Duke Libraries subscribe to such research databases as Early English Books Online (EEBO), which provides users with online access to almost all known English-language books and pamphlets published between 1473 and 1700.

Among the latter are such rare gems as Thomas Doolittle’s 1666 self-help book, הוהיל בישא המ [Heb. = “What shall I return to God”], or, A Serious Enquiry for a Suitable Return for Continued Life, in and after a Time of Great Mortality, by a Wasting Plague (anno 1665) answered in XIII directions, which claims to offer its readers instructions “on how to live life after a wasting plague.”  (Just imagine how much money a self-styled life-coach would make if s/he were to publish a 13-step guide to a better life after COVID-19!) Another subscription database, Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online (MEMSO), provides access to other types of English-language primary sources, including family papers and government documents from the period ca. 1100 and 1800, which users can consult in order to find additional contemporary references to the Great Plague.

In some instances, subscription-based electronic resources such as EEBO and MEMSO can be supplemented by those made freely-available on the internet.  For example, the Diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), one of the primary sources that the Mootes used to such good effect in their book on the London plague, are now available in electronic format through Project Gutenberg, a digital library created in 1971 by volunteers committed to making books in the public domain freely available online.  Pepys was an energetic and talented man, who rose from modest beginnings to become the greatest naval administrator of the age, at a time when Britannia was just starting to rule the waves. The private diary that he kept from 1660 until 1669 is one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period, providing a combination of frank personal revelations and detailed eyewitness accounts of important public events, including the Great Plague of London.  In the early 18th century, Pepys’ manuscript diaries, along with the rest of his personal library, were donated to Magdalene College, Cambridge.  But the diaries were not published until almost a century later.  And it took yet another century before technological developments made it possible not only to produce a digital version of Pepys’ text but also to publish it online.

Pepys’ eyewitness account of daily life during the plague year records observations and details that would have otherwise been lost to posterity.  The following excerpt from a typical day (Friday, 5 January 1665/6), for example, recounts what he saw while riding in a coach on the way to an event in the capitol, in the period immediately after the plague had begun to subside:

And a delightfull thing it is to see the towne full of people again as now it is; and shops begin to open, though in many places seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the towne is full, compared with what it used to be. I mean the City end; for Covent-Guarden and Westminster are yet very empty of people, no Court nor gentry being there.

This version of Pepys’ text comes from Phil Gyford’s groundbreaking blog, which was created in 2003 as a daily transcription of a single day’s entry from the Diary, using the copyright-free text made available online by Project GutenbergAlthough the British blogger who created this site is not a professional academic — Gyford prefers to call himself an “actor, modelmaker, illustrator and futurist” -– he has created a platform that has attracted the attention of scholars and researchers the world over.  Since 2012, when Gyford completed his transcription of Pepys’ Diary, numerous experts have provided annotations to, or written in-depth articles about selected topics brought up in individual diary entries.  (For example, clicking the hyperlinked term “the City” in the daily entry quoted above opens a box with an explanatory note about the history of this geographically delimited section within Greater London).  Thanks to such contributions, Gyford’s site continues to evolve, thereby providing a good example of the value added by open access electronic resources, which do not lock away the results of scholarly research behind the ‘pay walls’ erected by monopolistic publishers.

Researchers interested in a more literary treatment of the Great Plague would do well to consult A journal of the plague year: being observations or memorials, of the most remarkable occurrences, as well publick as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665..., available online both via paid subscription to Thomson Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online and for free via Project Gutenberg.  This work was written by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), but published, without attribution (under the initials “H.F.”), in 1722.  The famed author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) was only about five years old when the Great Plague hit London, so he could not have remembered much of what he and his family had experienced at the time.  And yet Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is described on its title page as a never-before-published memoir by “a citizen who continued all the while in London.” Even the year of publication raises suspicions about the historical authenticity of this self-proclaimed memoir, since the book appeared during a period of high public interest in plagues due to a recent outbreak in France.  In other words, what we see here is Defoe in his role as literary entrepreneur, rather than as autobiographer.  And yet Defoe’s masterly combination of first-person narration and realistic description (apparently based on substantial historical research), has embroiled scholars in a century-long debate over the question whether Journal of the Plague Year was, in fact, fiction or something more like history.

Perhaps the best answer to that question is provided by “H.F.,” the anonymous author of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, who concludes his “account of this calamitous year …with a coarse but sincere stanza…, which I placed at the end of my ordinary memorandums the same year they were written”:

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!

In the space of four short lines of verse, this brief meditation on mortality manages to encapsulate the complicated mixture of emotions that a survivor of a pandemic must have experienced upon learning the total death count.  A moment when the fleeting feeling of joy over one’s own salvation is leavened with grief, loss, and something even more insidious, viz., the nagging, unanswered question: Why was I spared, when so many were taken?

In other words, Defoe’s fictionalized account does not have to be true factually in order to capture and convey the experience of anyone who has ever lived through a catastrophic and traumatic event (such as the one we are currently in).  In that sense, A Journal of the Plague Year is as much of a must-read today as it was when first published.

Vignette and end engraving from A Journal of the Plague

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 2

Edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.

This is the second in a series of blog posts on global pandemics by the staff of and/or subject specialists directly affiliated with Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies DepartmentAs is the case with the first installment of the series, the librarians who contributed the following entries seek to offer suggestions for further reading, not a comprehensive bibliography on the topicFor additional resources (visual or textual, analog or digital) on plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics from around the world, please contact the appropriate IAS librarian. And if you have any recommendations of your own, please “reply” to this blog post below.

_________________________________

Danette Pachtner
Librarian for Film, Video, & Digital Media and Women’s Studies

Unless you are a die-hard fan of the genre, it may be too soon in our experience of COVID-19 to seek out movies featuring infectious diseases that inspire moral panic or plagues that end the world. And even hardcore fans might want to take a break from perennial favorites, such as The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise, 1971, U.S), 28 Days Later (dir. Danny Boyle, 2002, U.K.), Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006, U.S. & U.K.), Contagion (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2011, U.S.), or the cult classic (and my personal favorite) 12 Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1995, U.S.).

However, as Duke’s Librarian for Film, Video, & Digital Media, it is my job to challenge patrons’ expectations of what/when/who is watchable by exposing them to visual resources that they might otherwise not know about or simply choose to ignore.  That is why I have compiled a short list of lesser known, but no-less-provocative foreign films that are all available, with English subtitles, in the Duke Libraries’ film collection. Precisely because of their variety of approaches—from bucolic (Wondrous Boccaccio ) to philosophical (The Seventh Seal) to apocalyptic (The Flu)—these films demonstrate that there are as many cinematic responses to pandemics as there are international movie makers and audiences. And these responses are as unique and culturally-mediated as the cinematic experience itself.

Wondrous Boccaccio

Wondrous Boccaccio (dirs. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 2015, Italy)
consumer streaming platforms | Lilly DVD 29001 | streaming in the Libraries [access requires Duke netid/password | licensed through 9-30-2020]
Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s  Renaissance classic, The Decameron, this film follows the lives of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence in the mid-14th century, at the height of a pandemic that would ultimately kill over 30 million people, alter the European social structure, and influence the ideologies of those who survived. The Taviani brothers use Renaissance painting as a source of inspiration in their film. The cinematography evokes the vibrant colors of artists such as Botticelli in his scenes from The Decameron, as well as those of Masaccio and Giotto, moving from dark blacks in the plague-ridden city to vibrant colors of the countryside. The characters find refuge in an abandoned villa in the Tuscan hills and pass the time by telling each other tales of love, which range from the erotic to the tragic.

Image from film, Blindness
Blindness

Blindness (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2008, Brazil & Canada)
consumer streaming platforms |Ford DVD #4943
Based on the bestselling novel by Nobel-Prize-winning Portuguese author, José Saramago, a city is ravaged by an epidemic of instant white blindness. Filmed on location in Brazil, Canada, and Uruguayalthough “the city” is never specifically identifiedthe story focuses on the behavior of  people who are losing their sight and are forced to survive in a sea of whiteness. The film depicts the ugliest side of human nature in a crisis; it offers a devastating portrait of institutional failure and government betrayal. The viewer can recognize chilling parallels with our current COVID-19 crisis, from the opportunism of corrupt governments to the neglect of the health-care system. Blindness is an end-of-civilization fable which is thought-provoking and topical in its indictment of declining social mores.

Image from film, The Hole
The Hole

The Hole (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1998, Taiwan) Lilly DVD 366
At the cusp of the 21st century, Taiwan experiences a torrential rain that brings with it a mysterious virus of epic proportions. Symptoms of “Taiwan Fever” include high fever and an acute sensitivity to light. Sections of the city are quarantined with essential services cut off by the government. The film is set in an apartment block in a quarantine zone where residents remain, against quarantine regulations. A plumber comes to fix a leak and instead leaves a gaping hole through which a tenant can see into his neighbor’s apartment below, and they develop a connection. The Hole presents a remarkable blend of aesthetic elements of science fiction, absurdism, and romantic fantasy, with musical sequences to boot. The film does not travel beyond the bounds of the apartment block. It explores the inward-looking aspects of an outbreakthe isolation it causes and how interactions with others become intensified.

Image from Seventh Seal
Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden) consumer streaming platforms |Lilly DVD 14846
Exhausted and embittered after a decade of battling in the Crusades, a knight returns home to a land ravaged by bubonic plague. He encounters Death on a desolate beach and challenges him to a fateful game of chess. Focusing on issues of man’s relationships with death, life and God, Bergman’s story transcends simple metaphor in this now classic work rich in philosophical allegory that remains especially relevant today.

The Flu

The Flu (dir. Kim Sung-su, 2013, S. Korea) consumer streaming platforms | Lilly DVD 26447
This South Korean medical disaster film tells the story of panic, despair, and the desperate struggle for survival in a city that has been quarantined after the outbreak of a deadly virus.  The virus in this scenario is H5N1 influenza (commonly known as the ‘bird flu’) introduced by illegal immigrants from Hong Kong, arriving in a shipping container.  In order to prevent the spread of the virus worldwide, the government issues a national disaster and orders a city-wide lockdown. Citizens stock up on daily necessities, starting riots as mistrust of each other builds. In the meantime, politicians’ quarrels, powerless governments, and unwelcome U.S. involvement force the viewer to consider eventualities that might be even more frightening than a virus attack. Sound familiar?

___________________________________

Miree Ku
Korean Studies Librarian

Aside from scientific articles in medical journals about the most recent outbreaks of new strains of influenza and coronavirus, the issue of pandemics on the Korean peninsula has only recently attracted the attention from the English-speaking scholarly community.  That is why most of the publications on the topic are currently in the form of scholarly journal articles, dissertations, and theses, rather than academic monographs.

Korea Journal

For example, in 2011, Chaisung Lim, then Assistant Professor at the Institute for Japanese Studies at Korea’s Seoul National University, published an article on “The Pandemic of the Spanish Influenza in Colonial Korea” in the Korea Journal, a quarterly academic publication founded in 1961 with the goal of promoting Korean Studies around the world.  By examining the Spanish influenza, which was widespread during 1918-1921, Lim sought “to elucidate the structural aspect of disease and death in colonial Korea” and to “explor[e] its socioeconomic effects.” The author focused on the public health policies adopted by the Government-General of Korea (GGK)—the Japanese colonial ruling organ from 1910 to 1945—and the degree to which these measures contributed to the mortality of the general population.  He further probed how GGK’s policies were differentiated by ethnic group (ethnic Koreans and Japanese), as well as how much access each ethnic group had to measures for medical treatment. His research revealed a significant difference in the fatality rates between the two ethnic groups—a conclusion that reminds me of the differential effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minority groups in the US. Interestingly, Lim’s study also posited that the social frustration caused by the pandemic and the ensuing economic hardships served as a source for the so-called March First Independence Movement in 1919, one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule.

Pathogens from the Pulpit in DukeSpace

Another example of English-language research on the same topic comes from somewhere even closer to home.  Two years ago, a Duke undergraduate student named Alan Ko asked me, in my capacity as the Korean Studies Librarian, to assist him with his research on the Spanish flu during the colonial period in Korea.  He was then in the process of working on an honors thesis in the History Department and was looking for Korean-language primary sources.  Among other things, I suggested that he take a look at contemporary Korean newspapers, such as those made available in e-format by several different Korean newspaper archives.  He used those sources to examine how Western missionaries in colonial Korea perceived disease among the local populace and how public health efforts correlated with certain preconceived cultural and social factors.  Needless to say, it was very gratifying to learn that Alan not only went to graduate with honors, but that his honors thesis, “Pathogens from the Pulpit: Missionary Perceptions of Disease in Colonial Korea (1910-1940),” was deposited in DukeSpace—Duke Libraries’ online repository—thereby making the results of his research freely-available to other scholars.  It was also nice to see that the author publicly acknowledged the support that he received from Duke’s librarians, who not only helped him to locate “appropriate Korean language sources,” but also cheered him on with tea and pistachios, while he edited his thesis, during “work-study shifts” at Perkins library.

Plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics have also been a feature in Korean popular culture, appearing in several famous films, dramas, and novels.  One of the most recent films on the topic (The Flu) has already been mentioned above, in Danette Pachtner’s post on pandemics in international cinema.  Here, I would like to draw attention to another movie: “The Host,” a feature film directed by Bong Joon-ho—the Academy Award-winning director of The Parasite (2019).  Both The Host (2006) and The Flu (2013) were inspired by the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002-2004, which was caused by a different, but related strain of coronavirus than COVID-19.  Both films describe virus-related epidemic/pandemic situations and deal with the interplay between political and environmental issues. But only The Host has an American villain who is even more evil than the virus-spewing monster that he inadvertently unleashes upon the world.

The Host

The plot of The Host begins in a laboratory on an American military base in South Korea.  An American scientist working with dangerous chemicals orders his Korean colleague to dump them into the Han River, saying “who cares” and “it can’t really hurt anyone.”  Of course, turns out it can. The movie goes on to trace the havoc wreaked on Korea by a river-dwelling mutant created by the illegal dumping of chemical waste, as that monster begins to spread a deadly new virus, which can be transmitted (SARS-like) to humans through animals.

Despite its fantastic premise, this mash-up of medical disaster and monster movies actually has a basis in reality. In fact, the film was inspired by an incident from 2000 in which a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military in Seoul was ordered to dump a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain.  And, unfortunately, scenes from the movie have become an all-too-real part of our daily routine in the age of COVID-19.  In an eerie foreshadowing of the paranoia and anti-Asian racism that has attended the outbreak of the latest coronavirus pandemic, the movie depicts a world in which people who wear facemasks are so afraid of viral transmission that they come to suspect one another of deliberately, if not maliciously, hiding symptoms of the disease. The movie also highlights, if only by negative example, the critical role that the government can play during a national health crisis, portraying the South Korean government as bureaucratic, inept, and essentially uncaring.  Surely, there is no country in the world today where the government can be described in such unflattering terms. Now that is pure fantasy!

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part I

This is the first in a series of blog posts on global pandemics, edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.

Pandemics, by their very definition (< Greek pandēmos = pan ‘all’ + dēmos ‘people’), affect everyone in the entire world.  They expose the permeability of border walls and remind us of the invented nature of all geopolitical boundaries.  They also provide us with an opportunity to learn something about the lived experience of people from around the globe, those external ‘others’ whom it is all-too-easy to stereotype as strange, exotic, or dangerous.  That is, pandemics invite us not merely to recognize the humanity of, and suffer alongside perfect ‘strangers,’ who speak ‘foreign’ languages and write in ‘squiggly’ scripts, but actually to draw lessons from the way human communities in other parts of the world are dealing and/or have dealt with the same issues as us.

In order to help foster a more informed and compassionate approach to the current global health crisis, the subject specialists of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department have decided to devote a series of blog posts to the topic of plagues, epidemics, and pandemics in each of the world regions for which they collect materials and about which they offer reference and library instruction.  Our goal is not to provide exhaustive coverage of the topic, but merely to suggest one or two resources—preferably those available online and in English—that each subject specialist has found particularly meaningful or useful in helping him or her to understand the role that infectious diseases have played in the countries, continents, and world areas for which s/he is responsible.

If you would like to get more information about a particular world region or recommendations for additional resources on the topic, please feel free to contact the appropriate IAS librarian.  And do let us know if you have your own recommendations!  Simply leave a reply in the “Comment Section” at the end of this blog post.

___________________________

Holly Ackerman
Head, International & Area Studies Dept. and Librarian for Latin American, Iberian and Latino/a Studies

When the editors of the IAS blog proposed the idea of publishing a series of posts recommending readable, digitally-available, English-language resources on plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics in world literature and/or film, I approached the selection in my role as the Department Head, responsible for covering many world areas. I tried to recall a popular history with global reach that dealt both with politics and medicine. I wanted something that was deeply researched but also genuinely engaging.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, one that would also highlight the other role that I play in IAS, namely, the Librarian for Latin American, Iberian and Latino/a Studies.

John Barry’s panoramic history of the so-called “Spanish” Flu of 1918—the ruthless influenza pandemic that is estimated to have claimed 50-100 million lives (adjusted for population, that would equal 220 million to 430 million people today)—came immediately to mind. I had read it back in 2004 when it first came out and was that year’s winner of the National Academies of Sciences prize for the best book on science or medicine. A re-read this week confirmed its currency.

Barry, a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, seems to be speaking directly to the present when he says that medicine and politics cannot be separated in a pandemic and one is as significant as the other. He describes political leaders in 1918 lying to the public about the severity of the situation in order to maintain the World War I economy and their control over the electorate.  And also of blaming a particular foreign country for being the source of the outbreak, in an effort to shift the blame for their handling of the public health crisis onto a foreign country.  Sound familiar?

The good news in Barry’s sweeping account is the role of medicine in developing vaccines, public health officials broadcasting simple preventive measures (posters read, “Wear a mask; Save your life), the rise of “modern” medical schools such as Johns Hopkins, and the organization of the Red Cross. He offers case examples of communities that suppressed the disease (e.g., San Francisco) and those that failed to do so (e.g., Philadelphia). The “winners” combined truthful leaders, inspiration in public messaging, and stern demand for compliance with best practices. The “losers” combined denial with blaming (calling it “just a common cold” as corpses outnumbered coffins, attacking immigrants as “natural carriers,” and demanding legislation for mass euthanasia of domestic pets).

Anyone wanting to see how pandemics change history will find much to admire here.

___________________________

Sean Swanick
Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies

The issue of plague in the Middle East context has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves.  However, there are some excellent books and works-in-progress out there for anyone interested in the topic.

For example, Christopher S. Rose, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, has written an article about how the Egyptian government handled a pandemic in the past, at least partly in order to contextualize the criticism of the way the current Egyptian government has handled the COVID-19 crisis. Rose’s article has been accepted by the Journal of World History, but is unlikely to appear in print until 2021; and Rose’s book will not be out until sometime in the next decade.  That is why it is so great that this young scholar is willing to share some of the results of his research in a WordPress blog post on The “Spanish Flu” in Egypt. Rose argues that “for most of the war, civilian medical needs were a far distant second behind military medical needs” of the colonial occupiers of this strategically-important British protectorate. Consequently, when the pandemic hit, the Anglo-Egyptian government was “caught with its pants down”: hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed; physicians (who were mostly Egyptians, Greek, or Syrian) were overworked; agricultural production (on which the entire economy depended) ceased; religious services were suspended; and at least 130,000 people died. The fact that the flu pandemic—the worst health crisis during World War I in Egypt—came after the end of the war made everything worse. Rose argues that this was one of the “non-political events” in early 20th-century Egyptian history that prepared the ground for the political changes in the years that followed the pandemic.

An even earlier period of environmental, epidemiological, and political history of what is today’s Middle East is the subject of Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: the Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600, by Nükhet Varlik of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina.  This thorough, ground-breaking book explores the impact of plagues on Ottoman lands beginning with the Black Death, which ravaged the world from 1347 to 1351. One aspect of the work I found particularly interesting is the development of public health vis-à-vis the state. The Ottoman state was very conscious of the need for clean drinking water, hence the development of fountains throughout the empire—including the imperial capital, Istanbul—and the imperative to bury those who had died of the disease outside the city walls, so as to ensure that as much clean air as possible circulated within the city. Varlik’s book is not only well-researched, but also provides fascinating historical insight into a topic that has contemporary resonance, not least because of its insistence on the Western origins of the Plague, as well as its discussion of the pandemic’s effect both on physical bodies and the body politic.  After reading this book, you might also want to visit the Ottoman History Podcast for a discussion on Plague in the Ottoman World, featuring Nükhet Varlık, Yaron Ayalon, Orhan Pamuk, Lori Jones, Valentina Pugliano, and Edna Bonhomme.

___________________________

Luo Zhou
Chinese Studies Librarian

William C. Summer’s book on the Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911, will be an enlightening (and inspiring) read for today’s audience. The Manchuria (Northeast China) plague, which broke out in fall 1910 and killed more than 60,000 people by spring 1911, was caused by transmission from marmots to humans. It spread quickly both among the native Chinese inhabitants and the Russian, Japanese, American, and British diplomats and administrators stationed in Manchuria, a new center of global transportation and fur trade that was of strategic importance to the world powers.  Summer demonstrates that geopolitics—China’s political weakness and Russian and Japanese colonial aspirations in the region—shaped how the plague was contained and managed.  He also highlights the work of individual medical practitioners, such as Dr. Wu Lien-teh—the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge—who led the Chinese effort to end the plague.  Dr. Wu promoted the use of cloth facial masks, which were to be worn by doctors, nurses, patients, and anyone else whenever possible: the very first time that such an epidemic containment measure had been attempted and proven effective in the field.  In the end, the “Great Manchurian Plague” highlighted the importance of multinational medical responses and helped to promote the (eventual) establishment of the World Health Organization – an unintended, but welcome by-product of the epidemic.

In order to get a sense of the lived experience of COVID-19 in China today, it is best to turn to non-traditional outlets (e.g. WeChat, Weibo, Twitter, Facebook) and freely available electronic resources.  For example, in The Virus Diaries (疫境日記), a 10-minute YouTube video (in Cantonese, with English subtitles), from late January 2020, ordinary citizens of Hong Kong share their experiences of life during quarantine.

For mainland China, the most obvious (and most controversial) choice is Wuhan Diary (武汉日记) by Fang Fang (方方), the pen name of Wang Fang (汪芳; born 11 May 1955), an award-winning, contemporary Chinese writer. Although this fascinating, first-person account of life at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis is now available as an e-book, in an English-language translation by Michael Berry, Director of UCLA Center of China Studies, it began life as a series of posts on Fang’s social media page.  The author’s regular, daily entries on WeChat—a Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media, and mobile payment app—offered her personal (and mildly critical) comments on the effects of the deadly epidemic during the government-imposed lockdown. Almost as soon as they were posted, however, each of Fang’s entries about the effect of the coronavirus on Chinese society was consistently deleted by China’s internet censors.  But usually not before the latest entry had itself gone viral, having been shared by millions of WeChatters, both within China and abroad.  That has not slowed Chinese government efforts to stop the spread of the virtual virus unleashed by Fang Fang’s media posts.In an effort to dissuade overseas readers from purchasing the diary, the Global Times—an English-language newspaper published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily—claimed (falsely) that Fang “fell from grace in late March when many netizens and scholars began to question the authenticity of her diary.”  As if anticipating such politically motivated criticism, the last entry in Fang’s diary was entitled: “There is no tension between me and my country” (我和国家之间没有张力).