Public Health Historians Share a Pandemic Syllabus

July 20, 2020

A trio of public health historians, including two faculty members in the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia Mailman School, have published an essay and accompanying syllabus to provide a historical perspective on pandemics, including COVID-19. The article and syllabus appear online in Public Books, a magazine of ideas, arts, and scholarship.

Authors Merlin Chowkwanyun, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences, and Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, associate professor of sociomedical sciences, and David Barnes, associate professor of the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, write, “Disease has never been merely a biological phenomenon. Instead, all diseases—including COVID-19—are deeply social phenomena: in their origins, in their spread, in their impacts, and in the responses they engender among populations.”

The 11-week self-study syllabus lists several dozen journal articles and book chapters, as well as one podcast episode. These include publications by Chowkwanyun and Sivaramakrishnan about the context for racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 outcomes and local, national, and global responses to the 1994 outbreak of plague in Surat, India, respectively. The syllabus also includes articles by Columbia Mailman faculty James ColgroveRobert Fullilove, and Samuel Roberts.

The authors of the Public Books piece explain that their syllabus aims to scrutinize narratives that glorify technological interventions and Western biomedicine and ignore the xenophobic and racist ideology interwoven in the history of public health. “Our syllabus is underpinned by a strong belief that the long view effectively equips readers to leave with a sober understanding of public health’s many limitations but also a sense of positive and liberatory alternatives,” they write.