COVID-19 Medical Humanities Resources

Below are recommended Medical Humanities Resources for thinking and teaching about the pandemic, as well as for finding the support and solace that the medical humanities provide.  New additions are placed in light green shaded boxes.  (Also visit COVID19 Narratives and COVID-19 Ethics Resources.)

Syllabi:

  • Treating “Yellow Peril”—Resources to Address Coronavirus Racism—Recommended by Mari Webel, this crowdsourced Google doc contains resources to address the racialized anxieties that have become a dominant frame through which people evaluate the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes some English-language news reports from Asia and Europe, as well as news reports and academic analysis of COVID-19-related xenophobia.
  • #coronavirussyllabus—This crowdsourced cross-disciplinary resource—initiated by Alondra Nelson (President of The Social Science Research Council, and a recent speaker at Pitt in Africana Studies, Human Genetics, and the Center for Bioethics and Health Law)—lists resources examining myriad aspects of the current and past pandemics, including economic, historical, and psychological aspects, as well as literary and artistic treatments.


Short Stories:

The Decameron ProjectThis short story collection resulted from an invitation the New York Times issued to 29 authors to write new short stories inspired by the moment. The invitation was inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which  Rivka Galchan discusses in her essay—all presented with innovative, animated illustrations by Sophy Hollington.

On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges—This very brief story reminds us that scientific models are simplifications of the real world, only as good as the data used to create them and fraught with challenges in their actual use. In a podcast from The Guardian, Will Self reads the story (minutes :55 - 2:30), and then discusses it.

Was It Heaven? Or Hell? by Mark Twain—67-year-old twins, Hannah and Hester Gray, are very religious. Their niece, Margaret, is being treated for typhoid when her daughter also contracts the disease. What should Margaret be told?


Novels:

Support a local independent bookstore like City of Asylum Bookstore or The White Whale, including on-line bookshop.

Blindness by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago describes a government’s authoritarian response to a rapidly growing number of people within a city who find themselves unable to see.

The Children’s Hospital by pediatrician Chris Adrian tells of a floating hospital—the only thing to survive an apocalyptic flood of the Earth—and a third-year medical student who finds herself gifted with strange powers of healing.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano—Though it is about a young boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash, this novel seems apt for those of us trying to negotiate feeling both fortunate and guilty for surviving, while also mourning those who are lost to us during this pandemic.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann explores desire, self-interest, aging, social norms, and falsehoods told by governments to citizens and tourists, and by people to each other and themselves.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel—Mandel’s novel is described by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as “topical in a way she couldn't have foreseen when she was writing it” with a theme “about how things in life aren't as solid as we might assume.”

A Journal of the Plague YearDanielDaniel Defoe’s realistic account of the bubonic plague that killed one quarter of London’s population in 18 months 1665–1666.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is not merely the title that is being parodied for articles about “life or love in the time of COVID-19,” but a beautiful novel by Colombian Nobel prize winner Marquez, set in 1870–1930,  exploring love, aging, and death during wars and outbreaks of cholera. 

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell explores the effect of AIDS in Zambia where “a whole generation of Zambians were wiped out,” and the author lost many of her cousins who were older than she.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is the first novel in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and a work of speculative fiction, a love story set in the world devasted by genetic engineering and overwhelmed by a plague.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, a novel of 1918 Influenza epidemic—recommended by Bridget Keown

The Plague by Albert Camus—recommended by Jason Rosenstock and assigned in Pitt Med’s elective, Pandemic in Medicine and Society

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel—Taking place in the Great Lakes region after a fictional swine flu pandemic, known as the “Georgia Flu,” has devastated the world and killed most of the population, this novel follows a small troupe of actors and musicians, “The Traveling Symphony,” who have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive.

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, a political scientist, who writes novels of crime and corruption in Mexico—this one involves two crime families at war following a plague  

Weather by Jenny Offill—While explicitly addressing climate change, this novel felt very relevant to Emily Wanderer for coronavirus as well.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, is described as “a tale of fragile hope pitted against overwhelming disaster” (by a review in the The Guardian). It is based on the historical fact that in 1665 villagers in the Derbyshire town of Eyam, afflicted by the plague, voted to quarantine themselves so as not to spread the disease.

Three novels focus on epidemics and memory:

  • In The Book of M by Peng Shepherd, the first sign of infection is that people notice they cast no shadow, and then they begin to lose their memories
  • In Find Me by Laura van den Berg, the infection erases people’s memories and kills memories, but the protagonist is immune and uses the opportunity to enroll in a medical study as a way to craft her identity
  • In Severance by Ling Ma, set in a reimagined past in New York at roughly the time of Occupy Wall Street, Shen Fever makes people endlessly repeat old routines unto death, providing a powerful metaphor for the way the past can entrap and burden us. Ma commented that the animating question of the novel is “why does the China-born protagonist Candace Chen keep working at her job?”


Essays:

On writing the Great COVID-19 Novel—two essays, both humorous and insightful:

What Our Contagion Fables are Really About, by historian Jill Lapore, The New Yorker, March 23

Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history by Chelsea Haith for The Conversation, March 16


Histories:

In Ethics Talk: Immunity Status, Social Privilege, and the Novel Coronavirus, a video edition of Ethics Talk, AMA Journal of Ethics editor in chief, Audiey Kao talks with Stanford history professor Kathryn Olivarius about how yellow fever epidemics during the antebellum South provide a historical lens to examine power asymmetries and health inequities in the COVID-19 era.

Pandemic, Creating a Usable Past: Epidemic History, COVID-19, and the Future of Health was presented May 8-9 by the American Association for the History of Medicine with the support of the Princeton University Department of History. The very thoughtful talks, presented for the general public by leading historians of medicine, are archived here with descriptive titles. The program included sessions on the disparate experiences of the pandemic, frontline workers’ experiences, civil liberties, surveillance practices, the spread of dubious theories, and future of public health.

In Pandemics of the Past Jon Meacham reflects on Barbara W. Tuchman’s account of the bubonic plague in her 1978 book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and Stephen Coss’s 2016 book The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics. The books demonstrate, Meacham argues (in his New York Times Book Review column on May 7), that the epidemics advanced civilization toward modernity and its embrace of science.

Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health, by historian of medicine Judith Walzer Leavitt, tells the story of Mary Mallon, a victim not only of typhoid, but also prejudice against immigrants and women, who was isolated for life by public health authorities after she was found to have infected 22 New Yorkers between 1900 and 1907.

In How Pandemics End, science writer Gina Kolata describes—in relation to past pandemics and the current crisis—the difference between a pandemic ending socially and medically

Nature reviewed its top five suggestions for histories to help us understand the current pandemic:

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney—a journalist covers the global 1918 pandemic in a very accessible way—recommended by Bridget Keown

Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard MacKay—recommended by Bridget Keown
Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination by Gina Bright; according to Bridget Keown, Bright places epidemics in a social context and examines how we talk about people who suffer from and/or transmit diseases  
Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War, and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19  by Ida Milne—especially helpful because it addresses the trauma of an epidemic and the lifelong emotional burden it can place on survivors—recommended by Bridget Keown

Visualizing the History of Pandemicsa frequently updated visual resource comparing the impact of COVID-19 to that of past pandemics, recommended by Brock Bahler

‘Write It Down’: Historian Suggests Keeping a Record of Life During Pandemic—Historian Herbert “Tico” Braun explains why it is important for us to write about our experience of this pandemic


Other Non-Fiction:

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital—Journalist Sheri Fink recounts the tragic choices made at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina when a lack of planning and leadership led to implementation of a triage system that deprioritized critically ill patients for evacuation.

The COVID-19 Forum edited by Christos LynterisEmily Wanderer recommends this online collection in which anthropologists and historians examine this pandemic in relation to other epidemics and epidemic-control processes
The Strange Link Between Pandemics and Psychosis, by Shayla Love, Vice


Podcasts, Tweets, Talks, & Interviews:

Do not open that airlock: Notes from the COVID-19 Bunker, March 28, 2020 Remains to be Seen podcast

Voyage of the Damned: A Cruise through the Coronavirus Epidemic, March 15, 2020 Remains to be Seen podcast
A Goal of Service to Humankind, an audio essay by Anthony Fauci
“To The Rest Of The World, You Have No Idea What’s Coming”: Man Lists 6 Stages Italy Has Gone Through
Living Through History: Documenting 2020's Coronavirus Pandemic, by Ida Milne
Infections (sic. Infectious) Diseases Show Societies Who They Really Are, an On the Media podcast with Frank M. Snowden, Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at Yale and author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. An epidemic, he writes, “holds a mirror” to the civilization in which it occurs and discusses what we can learn about ourselves from the infectious diseases we’ve faced.


Film: (Thanks to the Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus project @ Northeastern University; titles are linked to IMDB and streaming information.)

Nosferatu (1922), F. W. Murnau

I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Jacques Tourneur

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Don Siegel 
The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman
The Andromeda Strain (1971), Robert Wise
The Cassandra Crossing (1976), George P. Cosmatos
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Philip Kaufman
Nosferatu The Vampyre (German: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) (1979), Werner Herzog
An Early Frost (1985), John Erman
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1986), Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein
Longtime Companion (1989), Norman René
And the Band Played On (1993), Roger Spottiswoode
Philadelphia (1993), Jonathan Demme
12 Monkeys (1995), Terry Gilliam
Outbreak (1995), Wolgang Petersen
The Hole (1998), Tsai Ming-liang
28 Days Later (2002), Danny Boyle
The Hours (2002), Stephen Daldry
Yesterday (2004), Darrell Roodt
Children of Men (2006), Alfonso Cuarón
Rent (2006), Chris Columbus
The Host (2006), Bong Joon-Ho
The Witnesses (2007), André Téchiné
Blindness (2008), Fernando Meirelles
The Happening (2008), M. Night Shyamalan
The Crazies (2010), Breck Eisner
Contagion (2011), Steven Soderbergh
Perfect Sense (2011), David Mackenzie
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Rupert Wyatt
We Were Here (2011), David Weissman
How to Survive a Plague (2012), David France
World War Z (2013), Marc Forster
Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Jean-Marc Vallée
Pride (2014), Matthew Warchus
The Normal Heart (2014), Ryan Murphy
Train to Busan [Busanhaeng] (2016), Sang-ho Yeon
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), Burr Steers
Grain [Buğday] (2017), Semih Kaplanoğlu
It Comes At Night (2017), Trey Edward Shults
Annihilation (2018), Alex Garland
BPM: Beats per Minute (2018), Robin Campillo


Visual Art:

The Maxo Vanka Murals, viewable online, may be Pittsburgh’s best visual entry point into consideration of the combination of economic inequality and global threat. Vanka (1889 - 1963), who painted his 25 murals in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale in 1937-1941. served in the Belgian Red Cross during World War I. Many of his murals depict the horrors of war and of poverty. (The image of Injustice holds unbalanced scales and wears a gasmask.) As COVID-19 has many people thinking about both “putting on their own oxygen masks first” and helping those around them, Vanka’s murals may help to focus both thought and discussion. (A University of Pittsburgh focused note: Vanka’s image of Injustice is the cover image the most recent book by political scientist and Global Studies Director Michael Goodhart: Injustice: Political Theory for the Real World.)

The Life-and-Death Shift: Doctors on the Front Lines in Northern Italy—photographs by Andrea Frazzetta and text by Jason Horowitz

Named one of the top-ten art podcasts by The New York Times in March 2020, Momus: The Podcast promotes “criticism in conversation” on a variety of timely issues relating to contemporary art and the present moment. In the face of the pandemic, it is issuing new podcasts every two weeks, “staring directly at our present crisis, with an eye to both history and potential,” beginning with this question put to art historian Eleanor Nairne, curator at London’s Barbican Art Gallery: what’s changed – and what should? “This prompt was already set, but with the emerging pandemic and its irreversible effects on our economy, cultural metabolism, relationship to art, sense of agency, and connection to one other, there has never been a better time to ask it.”

14 Days of Enforced Home Quarantine by Gareth Fuller


Performing Arts:

The Oregon Symphony is presenting a six-part series—Essential Sounds— with each episode combining video and musical performances in tribute to different groups of essential workers.

With a brief discussion of the way the current pandemic has altered our perception of time, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim presents A Playlist for the Coronavirus Time Warp, which includes seven pieces (and doesn’t list John Cage’s 4’3”).

When Pandemics Arise, Composers Carry On

An interesting essay explaining why this pandemic is the perfect time to listen to new music: “The choice to listen to new music prioritizes, if for one listen only, the artist over you. It is an emotional risk to live for a moment in the abyss of someone else’s world, but this invisible exchange powers the vanguard of art, even in times of historic inertia.”—Why Do We Even Listen to New Music?

Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt—though the Arvo Pärt Centre is closed due to the state of emergency declared by the Estonian government, here one can hear this soothing, transcendent piece that violinist Gidon Kremer described as “a declaration of silence, a manifesto of concentrating on important things,” admitting that the piece changed his life.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic, teamed with a Dutch healthcare provider, filmed the finale of Beethoven’s 9th with all the musicians playing their parts by video from their homes.

Musicians Are Performing Concerts in Their Homes During the Coronavirus Lockdown