Sometimes it’s hard to talk about COVID-19 because we are in the middle of the pandemic. It can be easier to discuss a disease of the past. Polio was a particularly interesting disease because it primarily affected children and was heavily featured in media as part of the March of Dimes campaign, run by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
Watch A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America or The Polio Crusade.
Why were people so afraid of polio?
What were some of the ways that the NFIP raised money through the March of Dimes campaigns?
What were some obstacles that scientists faced in developing an effective vaccine?
Why were most parents willing and eager to volunteer their children for the trials?
Talk to your older relatives and ask about their experiences with polio or with the vaccine. Did they have polio? What was their treatment like? Did they know kids or adults with polio? When did they receive the vaccine?
Reading historical fiction can teach you a lot about experiences people may have had during outbreaks of the past. In this genre, authors weave facts into their fictional stories and characters. I recommend reading these works of historical fiction and then conducting your own research on the epidemic and disease featured.
A notable example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, aimed at readers ages 10-14.
She uses documents from the real yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia to tell the story of 14 year-old Mattie Cook. This book is an exciting read and so well-done that it is often used as a teaching tool. Here are study guides that go along with the book.
Joyce Rockwood’s young adult novel To Spoil the Sun explores the devastating impact of smallpox on a Cherokee tribe in the 16th century. More of the story is fictionalized in that it isn’t set in a specific outbreak, but provides a perspective that has rarely appeared elsewhere.
Smallpox Strikes! by Norma Jean Lutz (ages 8-12) and describes the real-life inoculation controversy in the 1721 Boston epidemic. A boy must choose between following his family’s wishes and protecting the town against smallpox through the practice of inoculation (intentionally infecting yourself with disease in hopes that you’ll get a milder case).
For younger readers, book #26 Balto of the Blue Dawnof the Magic Treehouse series (very) loosely tells the story of the sled dogs that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria in 1925. Compare Jack and Annie’s tale to the real story as told here.
Here are other historical fiction works about disease:
What makes for a good work of historical fiction? How do authors use facts to create interesting fictional narratives?
Think about the current pandemic. How could these experiences be told in what will someday be historical fiction? Where would you set your story? What factual details would be important to include?
In researching my book, I spent months studying primary sources: newspaper articles, pamphlets, public health records, personal correspondence, diary entries and other materials. I never expected that I would see first-hand what a global contagious threat would look like in my life time. I had an idea of the progression of quarantine and the pattern of media coverage. At the same time, no book or microfilm prepared me for a number of aspects in this experience.
The Waiting Game: Nothing that I’ve read addressed what it is like to feel fine, have your family feel fine, but know that the danger is coming. . .for months and is not a matter of if, but when. I’m sure the people in the army camps of 1918 that got hit with the March/April wave of influenza felt similarly–just no one wrote about it.
Balancing Crisis Mode with Everyday Life: In the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, townsperson Elizabeth Drinker made daily notes in her diary that combined mundane activities like taking a walk with notes about the latest death toll and friends who had passed. I never imagined how strange it would be to do the basic things we have to do, like buy dog food, within the context of the COVID-19 cloud. Everything is the same, yet it’s not the same.
Some people are fools. Newspapers of the past occasionally mentioned individuals that broke quarantine and were then arrested. Since they didn’t have social media in 1925, for example, there weren’t Instagram photos capturing crowds flaunting their poor choices and lack of consideration for others.
Parenting in a pandemic: This is a big one that NO ONE talked about in the past. Children were part of past epidemics, of course, and were mentioned when they became ill and died, but the stories of active parenting during such a time were not documented and a preserved. As parents, it’s a tricky time. Not only are we juggling childcare and work, but we are also trying to balance crisis and despair with making sure our kids are fed, engaged, and have pretty good days. We have the added challenge of explaining and demonstrating this new reality without terrifying them and inciting panic. At the end of the day, our kids deserve to think that the world is good, they are safe, and this will pass.
How much I would miss the world during social distancing. I am certain that the groups of students quarantined at the University of Kansas and other schools felt lonely, bored, and isolated. However, we don’t have their personal testimonies about the experience. We are privileged to be safe here as a family. Yet, I will fully admit that I mourn our normal reality. Being extra-extroverted, I knew that I would have these feelings. But it’s not just my friends that I miss. I love being part of a community–like a normal one, in which you see the same faces at stores, parks, karate, and on campus. I miss teaching to human students sitting in front of me, even if they fall asleep sometimes. I want maskless faces to slightly breech the six-foot distancing just to chat for fun, comment on the weather, or to just return a “hello.” Someday we’ll get back to a new version of that world.
What does this all mean, aside from my own lamenting? We need to be writing our stories and recording the diverse experiences of others so that future generations can better understand what living at this time was like.
This meme is going around social media. Along with these:
Plus parody songs that time washing hands, instructional videos on how to get that lather, and a shortage of anti-bacterial soap that demonstrates people are listening.
So I don’t seriously think you should stop washing your hands. It should have been standard practice. And yes, we could all use a little reminder to linger at the sink and up our thoroughness.
That said, I have several issues with this message as the dominant onewe’re still reciting, meming, and sharing. Back in January, this “wash your hands” campaign was a good introduction to the escalation about to come. And yet we’ve spent more time repeating this phrase than sharing vital information from the CDC, World Health Organization, public health departments, and other sources.
Using risk language (like in the meme above) simplifies disease transmission into a Magic Bullet Model. Under this falsely-conveyed causation, if you test positive for COVID-19, then you must have failed at washing your hands or not touching your face. This is not how disease works. Transmission, susceptibility, and immunity are complicated. We don’t know exactly how each person got infectedso we need to stop assigning blame for those yet to be infected. And with that, stop blaming people from other countries too. It won’t protect you. Instead, treat everyone like they are Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, or Idris Elba.
Here’s the deal: We need regular people to feel comfortable coming forward and sharing their personal experiences so stop stigmatizing individuals who have tested positive (and the many who likely have the disease but aren’t being tested). It is helpful to hear about the varied unfolding of this disease and how it affects different people. We should be thinking about how we can best be prepared and help out, not accusing others of improper hand washing. The when is here. It’s time to shift our own messages accordingly.
I spent the past few years trying to find out everything I could about disease and the impact of epidemics on society. For each of the outbreaks featured in my book (and for some that didn’t make the cut), I did my best to bring together every tiny piece of information or perspective that would help me better understand what how the crisis unfolded. Over the last few months, weeks, and days, I have felt an eerie sense of dejá vu.
Cycle of an epidemic. The narratives of epidemics seem to follow an Aristotealean plot structure, with the story shifting into crisis mode, the escalation–marked by fear and panic, and then finally a resolution, marked by reassuring promises and optimism before eventually returning to the new normal. It is both intriguing and disturbing how states have varied on their own perception of the current stage.
Innovation in creating transforming spaces into hospitals. As cases outnumber hospital beds, public health authorities have had to get creative, turning houses and other spaces into makeshift medical facilities. In 1944, when a polio outbreak overtook the town of Hickory, NC, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis helped transform a summer camp into a hospital in just three days. It was heralded as the “Miracle of Hickory.” As exemplified in this story about the Comfort ship in New York, public health authorities are already seeking facilities that could potentially become treatment centers.
Prejudice, Stigma, and Blame. Fear and uncertainly lead to misconceptions about disease origin and transmission. Too many times in the past and now, people blame a race, culture, and/or place for somehow “bringing” or causing an outbreak. I’m intentionally not going to give historic or current examples here. Stop profiling and recognize that contagions have always emerged. Focus on what unites us. We need global cooperation, not racist misinformation.
Opportunists Capitalizing on Crisis. Unfortunately, epidemics also bring out the unscrupulous, those trying to make money off of panic, fear, and tragedy. Physicians and laypeople alike used to concoct their own “medicine” and advertise it in the local papers.
Today’s regulation makes it more difficult for people to market their products as “cures.” However, we can certainly lump the hand sanitizer misers and TP hoarders selling their overpriced stockpiles into this category.
Emergence of Quack Remedies & Myths. On a related note, the profiteers are only successful because this is a vulnerable time. Without scientifically-backed cures (and sometimes with them), people have always come up with their own ideas about disease, which is exacerbated during epidemics. Past “cures” for various contagions have included smoking cigars (even for children), gunpowder, turpentine, enemas, hot air balloon rides, drinking blood, and onions. Some of these are not too far off of the COVID-19 “remedies.” No, drinking salt water will not kill the virus, despite the claims of a popular social media post.
Unsung Heroes. The good of humanity to pitch in and help. On the bright side, epidemics also bring out the helpers. Health professionals, clergy, volunteers, and others step up to assist those in need, risking their own lives so that others can receive treatment, food, clothing, and/or comfort. Notably, numerous members of the Free African Society worked tirelessly in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Many succumbed to the disease themselves.
We are already seeing unsung heroes in action. In as much as we recognize health professionals, we also need to praise food program distributors, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers and others who keep society together. It is and will be the helpers that push us through.
The virus-themed films Outbreak and Contagion are now more popular than they ever were during their initial releases. But once you’ve watched Dr. McDreamy as Jimbo or Gwyneth Paltrow play Patient Zero, what’s next on your viewing list? Across genres, many TV shows have done an “outbreak” episode (or an “almost outbreak” episode). Here are a few of my favorites:
6. Bones “The Pathos in the Pathogens” 8.23 (2013). A journalist is murdered by a human-made mutated virus. It becomes personal after one of the team members becomes infected. Unfortunately, the episode is more focused on the love story than the threat of the outbreak, but it’s still an interesting deviation from the usual Bones formula.
5. Little House on the Prairie “Plague” 1.18 (1975). Cheap cornmeal leads to a typhus outbreak in Walnut Grove. Charles Ingalls and others rush to find the source of the epidemic. This episode has all the elements of a great epidemic storyline. There’s tension, drama, and mystery as the death toll rises, while we, as the audience learn early on of the scourge’s source. My favorite of the numerous “outbreak” Little House episodes.
4. Criminal Minds “Amplification” 4.24 (2009). A serial killer releases anthrax spores to test the hypothesis of his master’s thesis. The BAU must work with CDC and U.S. Army to stop the unsub before he kills with disease. It’s high stakes, especially after one of the team becomes infected.
3. ER “Lockdown” 8.22 (2002). Several members of the ER are quarantined after two children are brought in with a smallpox-like virus. These episodes give a nice balance of drama with humor, as the quarantined health professionals struggle to pass the time.
2. The Walking Dead “Infected” 4.2 (2013). Rick and the other survivors battle a strange virus that spreads throughout the prison. This episode is a nice break from the usual threats in TWD.
1. Star Trek “The Way to Eden” 3.20 (1969). Space hippies bring a bacterium aboard the Enterprise. Besides the outbreak threat, it’s a delightful and interesting demonstration of mainstream fears of counterculture.
These are just the highlights. Sure, I could have included more medical dramas or westerns, but I especially enjoy these storylines when they appear in genres you wouldn’t expect. For more recommendations, see this IMDB list.