In “COVID-19 in Context: A Deans’ Forum on Living with a Pandemic” — a series of three virtual events — the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Virginia Tech College of Science have joined together to illustrate how a range of fields are contributing to our understanding of the pandemic.

The first of these events, “Understanding and Responding: The Politics of Public Health during Epidemics,” took place on November 2, 2020. Laura Belmonte, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, chaired the event.

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The webinar included two presentations:

Pathogenic Entanglements: A Reflection on the Sociopolitics of COVID-19

The emergence of COVID-19 in the United States was met with what seemed, at first, to be a surprising fact: The novel coronavirus disproportionately killed racialized minorities. While many public health scholars before and since have argued that this “excess mortality” should not surprise us, the fact that both the medical community and the broader public did not anticipate such disproportionate death tells us something about our flawed understandings of pathogenesis.

In “Pathogenic Entanglements: A Reflection on the Sociopolitics of COVID-19,” Rebecca Hester, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech, argued that rather than attributing these deaths to the agency of viruses and other microorganisms, or to social and institutional failure (of public health to prevent the emergence and transmission of coronavirus; of the medical community to mitigate its worst effects; or of the racialized poor to take care of themselves), we should instead see the emergence and transmission of COVID-19 as a “relational achievement” in which hosts, environments, and microbes become pathogenically entangled in a context of great — and growing — global inequity.

Hester contends that reframing infectious disease as a relational achievement not only sheds new light on our scientific understandings of viral pathogenesis, but also shows how society is implicated in what otherwise looks like an aleatory, albeit tragic, outcome.

Comparing Epidemics: Influenza in 1918 and COVID-19 in 2020

Studying the history of the 1918 “Spanish Influenza” pandemic provides useful insights into the possible courses and potential outcomes of the current COVID-19 pandemic. “Comparing Epidemics: Influenza in 1918 and COVID-19 in 2020” connected the methods of statistical inquiry and humanities analysis to understand three dimensions of this comparison: the timeline of cases and deaths; the differential impact on American communities based on race, age, and location; and an understanding of community experiences in the past and in the present.

As scholars studying epidemics and as members of a university community during an epidemic, the webinar presenters — Ron Fricker, a professor of statistics, and E. Thomas Ewing, a professor of history — drew upon scholarly training, disciplinary methods, and integrated approaches to understand the complex challenges of dealing with the uncertain, unequal, and unpredictable epidemic.