How Do Pandemics Change Us and Societies? We Are Eyewitnesses to History

I’ve created a little photo essay to preserve my history of the pandemic. Neighbors, unable to communicate in person, communicated by writing messages in chalk on the sidewalk. One neighbor created a rock garden with little messages. The Bynum Bridge in Chatham County, NC over the Haw River, long a place for high school students and others to spray-paint or scrawl graffiti in chalk, becomes a place to virtually mourn, express depressing or inspiring thoughts. A bulletin board in a parking lot near Chatham Crossing in the fall of 2020 set goals “before I die…”

I posted pictures of interactions with friends and family (masked, outdoors) during the pandemic, as well as a newspaper article I wrote about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Greensboro, NC and a few Facebook memes on the coronavirus.

Click for photo essay.

Have you taken photos to document the year-plus of the pandemic?

One year after most Americans realized the country was in the midst of a major pandemic, Keith Wailoo, a professor of history at Princeton University, discussed with NPR how pandemics change societies.

The Black Death of the 1300s “produced mortality – 25 million deaths – of such a scale and depopulation of such a scale that historians often point to it as a kind of demographic transformation that undermined the whole feudal system, the old feudal economic order and laid the basis for new economic systems, the rise of capitalism, et cetera,” he said.

The outbreak of cholera in the 19th century produced a concern about public health, and a larger role for government in protecting the health of citizens.

Pandemics reveal “social inequality… you have disproportionate deaths among people who are already in vulnerable positions… So the real danger is that one part of the population, the population that’s privileged, declares an end to the pandemic before it actually ends for people who are not as privileged. The face of AIDS today is a chilling reminder. AIDS has not disappeared. Even though people would like to call the AIDS pandemic over, in the United States, there’s, you know, 1.2 million cases and – guess what? – disproportionately Black Americans, disproportionately Latinx Americans affected by that still-ongoing pandemic.”

Wailoo won the 2021 Dan David Prize for his work centered in the history of medicine and health. “Wailoo was specifically recognized for his historical scholarship centered in race, science, and health equity and the links between social structures and disease,” the Daily Princetonian reported.

On the Short Wave NPR Podcast, correspondents noted that the Black Death led to the Renaissance. The 1918-19 flu pandemic helped give way to the roaring ’20s. So there may be hopeful, positive developments emerging from this pandemic.


A Bibliography of Historians’ Responses to COVID-19

NYT: “What Historians Will See When They Look Back on the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020. Universities and institutions are inviting the public to share their experiences during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath.”

A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of Covid-19, inspired by Daniel Defoe’s novel “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which chronicles the bubonic plague in 1665 London through the lens of one man.

StoryCorps on the pandemic.

“Students at Neumann University in Pennsylvania set up a series called the Coronavirus Diaries on the school’s radio station, WNUW-FM. Listeners record themselves sharing pandemic stories using a voice memo app or by leaving a phone message at the station. The diaries air hourly.”

“Local archives are also calling for oral histories and materials. The Atlanta History Center, for example, is asking the city’s residents for digital files and physical artifacts (the latter would be collected once the center reopens). The project is called Corona Collective.

The Covid-19 Oral History Project, based at the Arts and Humanities Institute on the Indianapolis campus of Indiana University.

Journals of survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic at Wright State University

Visualizing the History of Pandemics

Historians, pandemic (Google search).

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