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Surveying Historical Pandemics in the Midst of One

Anthropology Course Reimagined to Connect Lessons of Past With Present

By Sara Gavin

Historical pandemic photo

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress American National Red Cross photograph collection

Masked canteen workers take food to members of a family in Charlotte, N.C., who had just lost their wife and mother to influenza during the pandemic of 1918. A course this semester encourages students to ponder recurring themes from historical pandemics, as well as from the COVID crisis of 2020.

What’s it like teaching a course on pandemics in the middle of one that has so far killed 1.26 million people worldwide? “Emotionally overwhelming,” said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, an associate professor of anthropology at UMD.

From the 1918 flu to cholera in Haiti, SARS in China and HIV in Africa, her students this semester in “Plagues, Pathogens and Public Policy” are learning about how pandemics have played out at different times, scales and places throughout the world and how what they’re living through during COVID-19 in some ways repeats the experiences of past generations. 

“One of the things I keep coming back to is that after each pandemic, there were lessons to be learned and, a lot of times, they were the same lessons,” said Patty Pelingon ’21, an anthropology and biological sciences double major. “Why haven’t we learned these lessons by now?”

Such questions helped prompt Sangaramoorthy last summer to reconfigure the class for the coronavirus era—to get students to think more deeply and concretely about recurring themes that connect pandemics throughout history and space. A teaching innovation grant awarded by the Office of the Provost allowed Sangaramoorthy to hire a graduate student and an undergraduate to help her.

Biological sciences major Ananya Krishnan ’23, who added anthropology as a second major after “falling in love” with a global health course taught by Sangaramoorthy her freshman year, jumped at the chance to assist. She and Ph.D. student Samantha Primiano searched for materials from a mix of media, including podcasts, documentaries, articles and blogs that incorporate diverse voices and perspectives.

“The field of anthropology historically has been dominated by white males in academia,” said Krishnan, who is serving as a teaching assistant for the course. “In developing the syllabus, we not only wanted to make the readings more accessible and broad, but we wanted to highlight scholars and authors from different backgrounds, many of whom have experienced these events firsthand.”

One of the major goals for the course, which is available to all majors, is to highlight the way pandemics disproportionately impact members of marginalized groups. 

“The context of a pandemic can take us so many other places and is a revelatory way to shed light on all kinds of social and cultural conditions,” Primiano said. “It was eye opening to learn about the impact on migrants and refugees and how pandemics are connected to domestic violence, for instance.”

When the course offering was posted online in late spring, the 25 available seats were filled within 24 hours, and Sangaramoorthy had students begging her in emails to open more slots. However, she said the smaller class size makes virtual discussions about how the rapidly developing pandemic relates to course materials more manageable.

“We learn in the course about how to track the outbreak narrative, but with COVID-19, we’re living through the narrative as it changes,” Sangaramoorthy said. “They’re paying attention and asking tough questions. It can be really uncomfortable—balancing what they’re hearing and experiencing with what they’re learning.”

For Sangaramoorthy, who has studied disparities in the HIV/AIDS epidemic for decades, teaching in the context of a pandemic currently affecting the United States presents both a unique challenge and opportunity.

“I want them to grasp that global health isn’t out ‘there’ somewhere else in places that are distant,” she said. “Everything is connected.” 

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