COVID, Chronicled

Illustration of Covid-19 virus

“Diaries in the Time of Plague” are available via the UC San Diego Library at

Alumni are also welcome to share their pandemic experiences in Triton’s “Dispatches from a Pandemic” series. Read more at

Humanities classes bring the pandemic into curricula.

The current pandemic is far from the first, nor will it be the last health crisis for humanity. Claire Edington, associate professor in the Department of History at UC San Diego, has taught the “History of Public Health” course for five years, and for each year, a new issue has emerged: be it Ebola, the opioid epidemic or this year, COVID-19.

“The history of medicine has always served as an important window on social history, and looking at pandemics in general shows how epidemics have the potential both to reflect and remake our social world,” says Edington. “For instance, the recurrence of certain themes in the history of pandemics—the scapegoating of minority groups, or grassroots anti-vaccination movements—works powerfully to disrupt any linear narrative of progress. How do we mobilize the insights of history to create a more just, equitable world moving forward?”

Edington’s fall quarter class explored the history of epidemics around the globe, each in their unique historical context, without a centralized European or U.S. perspective. For instance, she says the first use of gauze masks was in Manchuria during the pneumonic plague of 1910–1911, and not the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

“Instead of looking for clear beginnings and endings, we look at how epidemics layer onto each other. They are not just discrete events,” she says. “It felt particularly poignant to be teaching this class now.”

First-year student Paige Nguyen has not yet experienced UC San Diego as most know it—a college campus teeming with activity. But part of Edington’s class assignments, “Diaries in the Time of Plague,” brought this moment in time into sharp focus.

“Studying epidemics of the past is already an interesting topic, but even more so when you’re living through a current pandemic,” says Nguyen, an education studies major. Her “plague diary” is now kept in the UC San Diego Library’s Special Collections & Archives.

Edington devised the assignment as a way for the class to be more reflective, recognizing that this is a difficult time to be a student. Students were allowed to submit their entries anonymously if they chose, as much of the content is deeply personal. She said she was surprised by how candid some of the submissions were and was glad that the students were able to open up.

Anushka Sinha, a third-year biology student, said the assignment became an outlet to voice frustration about what the pandemic has taken away from her college experience. This feeling was echoed by first-year student Morgan Korovec, majoring in communication. “There has been so much more focus on spreading hope and optimism during this pandemic that somewhere we forgot to acknowledge our present feelings or our current state of mind,” she says. “Completing the diary assignment encouraged me to make time for self-reflection and to really think about the important things, even beyond the scope of college life.”

In preparation for the project, students read and reflected on first-person accounts from past pandemics, starting with the Athenian plague of 430 B.C.E., followed by the Black Plague of the mid-1300s and, lastly, a personal journal from Wuhan, China, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What makes these different from other primary historical sources is they’re much more personal. I wanted to emphasize that in my own diaries,” says Clara Pham, a first-year history major. Her diary entries were audio recordings, so she could capture more intimate moments of silence and sound. “I wanted my audience to get another layer of vulnerability,” she says.

Edington’s course is just one way COVID-19 has entered curricula—other humanities classes have also adapted syllabi to speak to today’s pandemic.

Last summer, associate professor Saba Bazargan-Forward developed his philosophy class “Ethics & Society” to explicitly address issues pertaining to COVID-19, including moral discussions around face masks and forced quarantine, racism and racially disproportionate COVID-19 deaths and privacy issues regarding contact tracing.

And this past winter, assistant professor in literature Erin Suzuki offered the course “Pandemic Fictions,” using modern American fiction to highlight understandings of public health, race and economics. Suzuki, whose research interests include Asian American and Pacific Island literature, explained that in the texts for the class, pandemics are often metaphors for something else, such as oppressive governments and racial inequalities. But for students today, “pandemic” is more than a metaphor—it is a new way of life.

The COVID-19 pandemic has doubtlessly changed our lives and the way we see the world as a global community. “I feel our curriculum should reflect the experiences of our students and give them a place to talk about their own stories,” says Edington.

Yet, with history as a guide, the current pandemic will diminish, and humanity will endure, albeit changed. As our students of today become grandparents and great-grandparents of tomorrow, their personal accounts of this time will ensure that future generations may better understand the complexity of this historic era.

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