Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters: Reflections on Political Theory from Antiquity to the Age of COVID
Edited by Lee Trepanier. 
Routledge, 2022.
Hardcover, 238 pages, $170.

Reviewed by Richard Gunderman.

One of the biggest problems with new publications is their tendency to distract us from the old ones. This appetite for novelty often shifts into overdrive during disasters, whether meteorological, geological, manmade, or medical. Be it an earthquake, a hurricane or tornado, a mass shooting, or an epidemic, many of us expect continuous access to the latest updates, whether they be daily, hourly, or even minute-to-minute. So great was the appetite for news about the COVID-19 pandemic that it spawned its own “infodemic,” with a relentlessly breakneck news cycle and the circulation of a good deal of misinformation. Like the reporting of numbers of casualties during a war, broadcast, print, and web-based journalists often focused on the latest numbers of infected, hospitalized, and dead, followed later on by numbers of vaccinations administered. 

Many of the news reports not focused on the most recent pandemic developments adopted a strongly prospective outlook. It soon became apparent that the coronavirus could and would come in numerous variant forms, and journalists focused on which would be next, how easily it is spread, and fatality rates among those infected. A new disorder called “long COVID” soon emerged, spurring demand for stories about what those so afflicted could expect by way of symptoms and duration. Especially in the early phases of the pandemic, there was strong demand for reporting on the development of vaccines: when would they become available, in what numbers, who would have early access to them, and what benefits would they offer, such as preventing transmission or reducing illness severity and deaths? Equally popular were anticipated treatments and the benefits they could be expected to provide.

In both cases (breaking news and anticipated developments) the consumers of such stories were often left feeling relatively lost and hopeless. The action seemed to be at a national or international level, the purview of public health experts, pharmaceutical firms, and heads of state, with few options available to individuals beyond avoiding infection by isolating and masking up. During lockdown, many permanently lost their jobs, and others were unable to be with friends and loved ones, including those who had fallen ill, been hospitalized, or were even dying. For some period of time, funerals and memorial services seemed to be out of the question. Many were left feeling that the only available course of action was to “ride out” the storm, hoping that they would survive and be able to put their lives back together once the worst of it had passed.

A good bit of the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the pandemic lay in its novelty. The news media, by nature, tend to focus on what is new, and one way to gin up interest in such an event is to highlight its novelty. Some even suggested repeatedly that the pandemic was unprecedented, something humanity has not encountered before. While it is true that this particular coronavirus represented a largely novel infectious agent and that many new tools were at hand to monitor and cope with it, it is not the case that Americans or humanity had never dealt with such a scourge before. For example, the global influenza pandemic of 1918, often erroneously referred to as the “Spanish flu,” infected far more people and caused far more deaths. Likewise, HIV/AIDS, though an infection attributable to a very different infectious agent and manifesting a very different natural history, has also proved far more lethal. 

What was missing from much of the media coverage of this most recent pandemic was a sense of history. It represented not a novel human catastrophe but instead merely the latest of a long series of pandemics that have beset humankind, going back to the beginnings of recorded history and beyond. Great minds—medical, historical, philosophical, theological, and literary—had been thinking and writing about such experiences for millennia, including such titans as Hippocrates, Thucydides, Locke, Augustine, Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus, and Saramago. While the news media often presented life during the pandemic as a shipwreck on an island of utter novelty, leaving the general public bereft of means of coping with it, in fact great resources from the past cried out to be reread, discussed, and relied upon in helping people cope with the uncertainties of plague time.

Connecting us to these resources constitutes perhaps the principal advantage of this new volume, Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. When a disaster such as a pandemic comes around, we are not entirely in terra incognita. Others have preceded us along these paths. Some, such as Thucydides, who may have died of the plague before he could finish his great History of the Peloponnesian War, paid a great price for their reportage. Yet these writers provide us with an idea of what to expect, what to beware, and how we can best respond. For example, those who lose hope are liable to collapse in on themselves, while those who stay active, pursuing as best they can what makes life meaningful to them, including rendering aid to others, enjoy not only a survival advantage but an opportunity to keep making a difference. It is possible to live, and live well, even in the midst of pandemic. 

We are not alone or bereft of noble examples to which we can look and thereby conjure the better angels of our nature. The COVID pandemic was not an apocalypse, though terrible in many ways. It was an opportunity to reexamine and reprioritize what matters most to us in life. We were not consigned, like the victims of a great flood, to sitting on our roofs and waiting for rescue. There were steps every one of us could take, and one of the most important was to divert some of our time from obsessively checking the news ticker and instead reading well and reaching out to others. We could, for example, opt for solidarity instead of isolation, avoiding the temptation to condemn our fellow citizens amid shortages of toilet paper and cooking ingredients. What might have seemed a doomsday was also an opportunity for each of us, in some way, to come to the aid of our families, friends, and neighbors.

If, in the midst of disaster, we are to recall what we are truly capable of, individually and collectively, we need to expand our field of view beyond what happened in the past 24 hours or what we can reasonably expect and hope for in the coming months. We need to look back in time, to the great minds, hearts, and spirits who have weathered pandemics past, a turn admirably performed by the twenty brief essays in this collection, penned by scholars representing a wide range of disciplines. They remind us that throughout the pandemic, our footing was not a razor-thin ridge with abysses on all sides, but a broad intellectual and cultural foundation. I suspect that had this collection been available to academics from the pandemic’s first days, teachers and courses could have cultivated more hardiness and resilience, permitting the academy, amid widespread hopelessness and isolation, to do a better job of summoning forth our best. 

Richard Gunderman is Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University, where he also serves as John A Campbell Professor of Radiology.

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