Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Teaching About COVID-19 and Justice


Above: People walk the streets of New York City in summer 2020.

In 2020, the world experienced one of its worst pandemics since the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and it was generally preventable. Many people experienced massive changes in their lives as a result. While COVID-19 is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, at some point in the future, teachers will begin to discuss it as a historical event. At the writing of this, about 2.7 million people have died from the virus worldwide and that number will likely continue to rise for some time (especially with more variants of the virus emerging recently). Things are looking brighter, as several effective COVID-19 vaccines are now being administered globally. However, most countries have only just begun to grapple with the social and economic impacts of the virus.

So what should we teach students about COVID-19? How can we learn from this historical moment? And, possibly the most important question, what was the role of injustice in people's experiences during the pandemic? These are questions that many social studies teachers are asking. This post is my take on how we should teach the pandemic.

Above: Data from the United States on daily change in COVID-19 cases.

As a history educator, I worry that there will be too much focus on the reactions of politicians to the virus (as history is often framed around the decisions of powerful individuals), rather than the experience of everyday people, and how people from different groups and geographies experienced the pandemic in dramatically different ways. COVID-19 is really a global lesson about collective action and community care, and many people survived it despite, rather than because, leaders' choices. 

It would be helpful if teachers asked students three broad inquiry questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I will pose each of these questions and offer some sources (some for U.S. history and some from world history) to help in students in their investigations. In some ways, I hope this post can serve as a "mix tape" of sources for teaching COVID-19.

Also, here are some general resources to help students understand the enormity of COVID-19...

New York Times Domestic and Global COVID-19 Tracker

New York Times "How the Virus Spread" Map

National Geographic COVID-19 Global Spread Maps 

NPR's Shifts in COVID-19 Over Time 

RAND Air Traffic Visualization Before the Global Pandemic

Above: An image of the COVID-19 virus.

Question 1:  How could the response to COVID-19 have been different?

Above: The distribution of COVID-19 cases by region. Most of the cases have been concentrated in Europe and the Americas. Examining various nation's reactions can help explain why.

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to enter into a historical view, like many events, we may forget to ask if things could have been different. Often our positions from the future prevent us from seeing alternatives. However, the work of the historian is analysis, and we need to have our students analyze not only if the right decisions were made, but compare nation's responses, which can offer not only an understanding of what happened and why, but what we might do in the future when another pandemic occurs.

Group A Sources: A History of Past Pandemics




Group B Sources: International Comparisons of Government Responses to COVID-19





Group C Sources: U.S. and European Reactions to COVID-19









What did COVID-19 expose about modern society?

Above: An anti-shutdown/anti-mask rally during the COVID-19 pandemic in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

There have been many pandemics in human history, with some being worse than others. In our modern times, we have seen three pandemics reach global proportions (i.e., 1918 Influenza, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19), while others tended to be localized, albeit with serious impact (e.g., late 1950s avian flu in Asia, SARS, 2009 H1N1 pandemic, mid-2010s Ebola pandemic in West Africa). Why were some pandemics better controlled? Are there aspects to modern life that make it more difficult to control pandemics? What was the role in misinformation in the spread of the virus? Five key issues in understanding the role of modern life relate to individualism versus collectivism, capitalism and free markets, the de-funding of social services and health care, wealth inequality, and the spread of misinformation.

Group D Sources: Individualism vs. Collectivism





Group E Sources: Capitalism and Free Markets






Group F Sources: De-Funding Social Services and Privatized Health Care







Group G Sources: Wealth Inequality





Group H Sources: Misinformation About COVID-19





What was the role of white supremacy in the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Above: Two maps of Boston, Massachusetts, showing higher percentages of people of color and higher infection rates based on neighborhoods. Predominately Black and Latinx neighborhoods, such as Dorchester (my neighborhood), Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park had higher rates of COVID-19. Examining how race, class, and other factors impacted the spread and response of the virus can help students understand how not everyone had the same privilege to avoid exposure to the virus.

This is the question that I fear will be least likely to be asked by teachers and students (yet it is most important), especially over time. The further we get away from this pandemic, the more the dominant white narratives of what happened will be told in the media, in textbooks, and elsewhere. Yet, the racial and geographic disparities that occurred during COVID-19 should not only be remember, but be centered the historical study of it. Four main ideas should help students understand the role of racism and white supremacy in the COVID-19 pandemic: (1) How have communities of color had a larger social burden during the pandemic? People of color in the United States, Canada, and Europe were often at higher-risk to exposure to COVID-19 through their employment and housing disparities. (2) How did white privilege help protect white people from the pandemic (and frame their pandemic experience)? White workers, especially white white-collar workers were much more likely to have the flexibility to work from home. Many white people live in suburban or rural areas and were more isolated from the initial spread of the virus. Further complicating this, white people were more likely to report not wearing masks, while also receiving better health care responses when they did get the virus and more access to vaccines. (3) How did anti-Asian and anti-Asian American racism and violence spread during the pandemic? Many politicians used hateful terms targeting Chinese and Asian people. There were many documented acts of individual or group violence endangering Asian and American lives. COVID-19 brought back a long history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. and globally. (4) What was the role of COVID-19 in fostering racial justice movements and activism in the summer of 2020 and afterward? How did activists organize against hate and racism?

Group I Sources: Impacts on Communities of Color






Group J Sources: White Privilege and the Pandemic







Group K Sources: Anti-Asian/Asian American Racism and Violence During COVID-19








Group L Sources: Racial Justice Movements, Black Lives Matter Protests, Asian American Solidarity, and COVID-19 






All of these questions would lead to a deeper inquiry into re-imagining national and global systems. Students will be in the driver seat of thinking of ways to build a more caring, collective, and anti-racist society that will prepare us for future domestic and global pandemics.

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