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.
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.
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.
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).