A poster illustrated with the head of a Black man overlaid with fencing and barbed wire.

Narratives of Pandemics Past: Archival Approaches to Understanding the COVID-19 Pandemic

Alexandre White, PhD will speak on Thursday, January 27, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. White is Assistant Professor of Sociology and the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and School of Medicine. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like? 

Informal portrait of a Black man in a suit in front of a gold framed painting.Alexandre White: I live in Baltimore now but was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin and grew up in South Africa, Moscow Russia, and London UK. My research focuses primarily on the histories of international epidemic responses with a particular focus on the development of international regulations for the management of infectious diseases.

As an educator I teach undergraduates in courses in the history of medicine, medical sociology and theory. I also teach medical students at the School of Medicine about the historical roles of racism in medical practice as well as courses on social medicine. I also teach histories of international health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

I don’t think I know what a typical work day is anymore but my days during the semester are often spent teaching and meeting with students, attending meetings and conducting collaborative work with other scholars at Hopkins. Since the emergence of COVID-19 I have been conducting more policy facing work in areas of community health strengthening, racial health equity and health care access. I do this through working with both Communivax, a coalition to strengthen community’s role in an equitable COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign, as well as the Health Leads Vaccine Equity Cooperative.  Currently I am finishing up the final revisions of my book—Epidemic Orientalism (working title) which should be coming out in late 2022 with Stanford University Press.  The nature of my research has put me in a position to hopefully be useful in this difficult moment of global pandemic. Truthfully, I did not anticipate my research would be of interest to so many so quickly after finishing my PhD and writing my book manuscript but I hope it is helping in this very tough time.

CN: Your talk, “Narratives of Pandemics Past: Archival Approaches to Understanding the COVID-19 Pandemic,” explores historical perspectives on our current health crisis. Was there a primary question that sparked your decision to do this research?

AW: This presentation emerges out of the sort of questions and issues I take up in the book project and these emerge from my dissertation research in graduate school. I’ve been fascinated by the question of why do certain diseases or epidemics become global threats engendering a significant international response while others perhaps do not in spite of similar epidemiological risks. I was drawn to this question after traveling to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia shortly after the West African Ebola epidemic. I traveled at a time when there were zero reported cases and the epidemic had almost been declared over but I was fascinated by the discontinuity between the relaxation of Ebola controls in the city itself, and the overwhelming biomedical surveillance systems that existed at the airport—thermal temperature scanners, infrared thermometers, travel checks and questionnaires. These are all things that are commonplace now but at the time I was fascinated by the level of biosecurity imposed on such a small airport aimed at keeping Ebola in Monrovia and not letting it escape. As I conducted more research, I became curious about the other social, economic and political factors that affect the perception of risk and epidemic threat. My research has taught me that in order to understand how disease control operates it is not sufficient to understand the biology of our most pressing threats but also the social, political and economic assumptions of those assessing these threats.

A poster illustrated with the head of a Black man overlaid with fencing and barbed wire.
I Am Not a Disease: Learn the Facts About Ebola, 2014
By Artist Alice Drueding for Posters Against Ebola
National Library of Medicine #101655149

CN: When a crisis occurs people often look to the past to make comparisons and guide decisions.  Did you see that same impulse expressed in the historical record?

AW: Absolutely. How many times have we heard in the media, reporters or historians make comparisons between COVID-19 and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918? Similarly, International health decision making is often predicated on past historical experience. Decision making related to the global response to Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa was predicated upon and took into account the political and social responses to H1N1 swine flu in 2009. But as we also see historical reflections in the epidemiological characteristics of disease and pandemics, we also see them in the social and political responses, and many of these connections are not positive. For instance, legacies of racism and xenophobia are an all too common occurrence during a pandemic. All too often certain peoples are forced to shoulder the blame for the spread of disease and are then oppressed for it. The anti-Chinese and anti-Asian attacks, slurs and violence that we have seen during this pandemic harken back to very similar responses and justifications made during bubonic plague outbreaks in Honolulu and San Francisco a century ago. All too often the specter of disease threats become embodied within those seen as other, racially, culturally or religiously to the social environment they inhabit. This scapegoating can become justification for aggressive oppressive policies like the anti-immigration acts of the 19th and early 20th centuries against Chinese and East Asian immigrants to the United States or even produce justification for racial segregation as was the case during a plague epidemic in 1901 Cape Town.

Asian women and children are seated on benches in a long, wire enclosed pen.
Immigrants being detained at Angel Island Immigration Station, California, ca. 1910
National Library of Medicine #101547036

CN: Much of your research has been done in archives, both at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and elsewhere. How did you approach your archival research and how did you translate what you found into an understanding of our present experience?

AW: That’s a great question. As a historian I want my work to help us understand not just our present but how the world operated at different moments. Certainly, the past holds lessons for our present but I don’t want to instrumentalize the past solely to contextualize our present. In the archives of the NLM or of the World Health Organization where I also do a good amount of research, we can find historical actors grappling with very similar questions that we ask today. But we also see very different political, economic, and social worlds than our present. If we look at the minutes of the International Sanitary Conferences—the meetings that produced the International Sanitary Conventions, the regulatory precursors to our current International Health Regulations—we find both questions of how to prevent the spread of infectious disease but also concerns for imperial trade and traffic, ideologies of racial difference, justifications for colonial violence and emerging consensus on germ theory. It is important to think about how all of these elements were understood in their own time. At the same time these moments give us insight into how certain ideas or concepts which we may take for granted now, or whose dangerous legacies persist, emerged in the first place. The NLM is an amazing resource for both shedding light on the past and illuminating why it is we think and do the things we do in the present. I do not think it would be possible to have an understanding of our current moment without reflecting on the pandemics of the past and the responses to them.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual, document, or resource in the NLM collections?

AW: While the NLM has an incredible set of materials pertaining to the earliest days of international health cooperation, the papers of Fred Soper and William Gorgas have been particularly useful to me. These two men, among many others involved in American tropical medicine campaigns and disease eradication projects brought with them not only epidemiological expertise and knowledge of vector control, but also, as Randall Packard, Nancy Stepan, Marcus Cueto, Omri Tubi, and others have written about, a particular vision of how to manage the health of populations, ideologies of race and racism, colonialism and military strategy. We can see these elements within their papers. These resources are so important when trying to do the sort of global historical work that I do which seeks to connect geographically separate events and practices to one another. These ideas traveled around the world, were translated into different settings and were also affected similarly by international health practice and colonial health practice globally. Understanding and seeing these connections would be impossible without the NLM.

Alexandre White’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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