‘Plagues and People’ class gives context for the pandemic

Throughout history, plagues and epidemics have afflicted humankind and have altered societies in ways that are both unique and common to each episode. Resistance to mandates, scapegoating and prejudice are recurring themes during past pandemics – and are no less true today.

Students learned these lessons in the popular biennial Plagues and People course – created by Laura Harrington, professor of entomology, 20 years ago, and taught this fall. The class focuses on plagues and epidemics in history that have had the biggest impacts on human culture and society – including the flu, typhus, plague, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and now, SARS-CoV-2.

“As we are all too aware by now, infectious diseases have the power to shape our world by altering the ways our societies function, our politics, our economies and the way we interact with each other,” said Marina Caillaud, senior lecturer in the Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who co-teaches the course with Harrington. “Fewer people understand that we are actually the architects of our own pandemics.” 

Deforestation, corruption, crowding, migrations, travel, wars and conflicts of interest are all human activities and behaviors that favor the emergence and spread of pathogens, Caillaud said. 

In the class, lectures surveyed the biology and impacts of plagues; why new pathogens emerge; social influences that play roles in how diseases emerge, spread and cause damage; and risks of future outbreaks.

“We intentionally put the COVID-19 unit towards the end of the course,”  Harrington said. “We thought that would be better placement so that the students could reflect on infections from hundreds of years ago,” and be able to compare similarities and differences with the current pandemic, Harrington said.

In the SARS-CoV-2 unit, lectures explored the biology of the virus and why it mutates so rapidly to create new variants, as well as social and political issues, such as disparities in vaccine availability and distribution. The more than 200 students in the class compared COVID-19 with past pandemics, including the 1918 flu, when some people resisted wearing masks just as they do today. One student’s final project covered the similarities between two pandemics.

“We have the same issues 100 years later,” Harrington said. “The students are learning that some things changed, but some things never change.”

Scapegoating and prejudice were other common themes among plagues throughout history. Bubonic plague pandemics, caused by the bacillus, Yersinia pestis, have occurred three times throughout history, starting in 541, 1347 and 1894. During the Middle Ages plague, called the Black Death, Jewish people were mistakenly accused of poisoning wells with disease and persecuted. At the same time, societal and political upheavals of The Black Death led to individualism and the Renaissance, the end of serfdom and the rise of the middle class in Europe.

In the 1894 outbreak, which arrived in the U.S. around 1900, Chinese immigrants were blamed; Chinatown in San Francisco was cordoned off and buildings burned, Harrington said. Today, newspapers have noted how Asian people in the U.S. have experienced greater prejudice and bodily harm, as they are wrongly blamed by some for COVID-19.

As part of the Active Learning Initiative, which is administered through the Center for Teaching Innovation and promotes working in groups and students experimenting with material outside of lectures, the Plagues and People course received funding to hire an active learning coordinator, Christina Schmidt.

In one exercise, the instructors asked students to write a “letter to their pre-pandemic self,” Harrington said. Student letters addressed their fears, frustrations, isolation, the ongoing impact the virus has on people’s lives, fake news, following the science, the importance of wearing a mask, and connection with friends and family.

“Set up a remote working plan and buy stock in Charmin!” wrote one student.

“Hug the people you love tighter and for longer,” wrote another.