Monday afternoon over 1,000 people tuned in to Zoom to watch University of Colorado Boulder history professors Elizabeth Fenn, Tom Zeiler and Susan Kent as well as political commentator Dan Carlin discuss the history of global pandemics and the lessons we can learn from them.
This event was a part of CU Boulder’s 72nd annual Conference on World Affairs, which was canceled due to COVID-19 but is holding five sessions this week online.
“How does it feel to live through a significant historical event?” Carlin asked. Carlin graduated from CU in 1989 with a degree in history; since then he has tackled the role of political commentator, hosting history podcasts such as Hardcore History and Common Sense.
“I think we’re very motivated when the death and the destruction is undeniably right around us,” Carlin said. “Negative experiences might end up teaching us more in the long run than positive ones.”
Zeiler, former history department chair and current director of the program in International Affairs, directed the conversation and fielded questions from the zoom audience.
“(I) heard a quip,” Zeiler said. “What we’ve learned from history is that we don’t learn from history.”
Elizabeth Fenn covered some basic epidemiological principles, referencing Australian virologist Frank Fenner. She said that the presence of a pathogen, vulnerable individuals and connections between them are needed in order to create an epidemic.
Fenn earned her Ph.D. from Yale University and is a current CU professor. As The Lucienne Driskill Professor of Western American History, Fenn focuses on epidemic disease, Native American history and environmental history. In 2015 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People.”
Fenn brought up historical diseases like the Black Plague which she said makes COVID-19 look like “child’s play.” Fenn brought up the fleeing of the rich in New York City and Philadelphia in the later two outbreaks.
“All of these epidemics…are compelling for the ways in which they reveal the fault lines in the societies in which they unfolded,” Fenn said.
The panelists responded to questions that came over the Zoom chat function, fielded by Zeiler.
In response to a question regarding how tech access impacts the divide between rich and poor—which has been made clearer by the current pandemic—Fenn brought up the historic concept of variolation, wherein wealthy members of society could pay to be exposed to smallpox and develop a mild case. Individuals who could afford this would recover from the disease and obtain lifetime immunity.
“It took a month to go through this procedure and not everybody could afford it, to stop plowing the fields (or) working in the cobbler shop for a month, so it became the prerogative of the well-to-do,” Fenn said.
Revealing the challenges of our current pandemic, Susan Kent was excluded from the first half of the discussion due to internet difficulties.
When Kent entered the conversation, she provided a slew of historical context related to pandemics, specifically the 1918 flu.
“The particular configurations of this influenza virus were in fact a product of the Great War,” Kent said. “The conditions of the war enabled a common and usually mild disease to mutate into a deadly strain, which then spread like wildfire across the globe, killing not only the weakest in the population but the very strongest as well.”
A CU Arts & Sciences professor of distinction, Kent teaches history focusing on gender, culture, imperialism, and politics in the context of modern British history. In 2012 she published “The Global Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.”
“It took advantage of thousands of people congregating together,” said Kent, taking this tragic historic context as a lesson for today. “What we need to learn very very acutely, literally to this very moment, is without a vaccine, without treatment in this age of coronavirus, we have to do the only thing we can do at this point… and that is to stay away from one another.”
In the future when we look back upon this pandemic, Carlin said, “I’d like to think that what we really gained from this was some resiliency and maybe a little bit of understanding about how we’re all linked together.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Mairead Brogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.