• Julia Zabinska

Combating Coronavirus with an Interdisciplinary Approach

It may appear at first glance that college students have life pretty easy. Their prepared meals, exemplary education, and lofty residences, all conveniently located within a tidy 1,000 acre campus, manifest the structured lifestyle that students enjoy and sometimes take for granted. However, I’d also argue that there’s more to the typical college student than meets the eye. They are fine-tuned to noticing, processing, and dealing with change, be that by supporting a political candidate they admire, furthering a social justice movement on campus, or doing their part to slow the global spread of a virus.

Students embrace awareness and educate one another in times of duress, knowing that the strength of a community lies in the uplifting of each individual. No event showcases this sensitivity to the changing times more than the Interdisciplinary Roundtable on the Coronavirus hosted by the Five College Program in Culture, Health, and Science on March 4th, 2020 held in Fayerweather Hall.

Amherst College hosted this panel discussion that included presentations from Mandy Muller, Andrew Lover, Katherine Mason, and George Qiao. Entering Fayerweather, it became instantly apparent that this indeed was a Five College colloquium. Students and professors from Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMASS squeezed into the rows of seats in Pruyne until the event became standing-room only.

Mandy Muller, a virologist from UMASS Amherst, began the panel with a short presentation on the virology of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the disease COVID-19. She reiterated facts about the 14-day incubation period of the virus, and warned about the misleading 2-3% mortality rate that she predicted would drop among populations under 50 to 0.4%. She ended the presentation by mentioning research and testing on the most promising antiviral against COVID-19, remidesivir.

Next came Andrew Lover’s presentation. Lover, an infectious disease epidemiologist from UMASS Amherst, expanded on the psychosocial impacts that a disease like COVID-19 imposes on patients in quarantine and how the initial quarantining procedures in certain nursing homes invoked feelings of loneliness and isolation among patients. It is important to keep in mind the context in which his remarks were made. On March 4th, the concepts of quarantining and social distancing weren’t yet as engrained in the public psyche as they are now. The fact that 70+ students and adults could sit in the same lecture hall at the same time seemed normal; now, this same presentation would be seen as the ultimate transgression of public health and safety. It is no surprise that when Lover mentioned the importance of finding a “pandemic pal,” or someone with whom you can check in with daily and deliver food/medicine to in case of infection, many students and even adults chuckled. The severity of this disease couldn’t yet be fathomed on our campus thousands of miles away.

The talk turned towards the social and historical implications of a novel disease like COVID-19 with the presentations of Katherine Mason, a medical anthropologist from Brown University, and George Qiao, a historian of China from Amherst College. Mason discussed the implications of China’s “imperfect hierarchy” of news dissemination and pointed out the numerous pitfalls when a central government relies on thousands of provincial officials and courts to report information accurately and speedily. She also noted an interesting point of difference between the current spread of COVID-19 and that of SARS in 2003: the unprecedented presence of social media has untapped potential for publicizing information that the public has a right to know, as seen early on in the virus’s timeline with the case of whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang. His warnings on social media to alert both doctors and the public about the severity of the disease, which the Chinese government attempted to stifle, exhibited the interplay between propaganda and public health during times of uncertainty, a theme that Qiao believes will take off when historians write about 2020 decades from now. His remarks about the remarkable phenomenon of awareness of the present as a potential historical event truly revealed the unparalleled qualities of life in the weeks before COVID-19 became a reality in all of our lives.

And now, this reality has become almost commonplace. Remote learning, social isolation, quarantine, unemployment, instability, and uncertainty; each of these words have undoubtedly earned their place in the historical narrative of COVID-19 and have touched each of our lives to some extent. But I sincerely hope that, when historians write about and analyze the year 2020 in the future, they also feel inclined to include the words “family,” “solidarity,” “healing,” “unity,” and “triumph,” for I am sure that these words just as equally deserve a spot in the history books. And I hope that college students across the country will feel inclined to shape the narrative of COVID-19 in their own words with a propensity for the truth and a recognition of their indispensable role in this tumultuous time.


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