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Halfway across the country, St. Louis showed that a different approach was possible. The city required social distancing in early October, a mere two days after its first reported case. Schools and churches closed; streets emptied out. The strict public-health measures worked: At its peak, St. Louis’s mortality rate was just a fifth of Philadelphia’s.
Examining the trajectories of those two cities helps us see how prudent measures can “flatten the curve” — and how politicized decisions can threaten public health. It’s an example of what social scientists call a “natural experiment,” a situation in which “natural” or random factors result in easily comparable scenarios.
I had planned to use that anecdote to kick-start a history-of-medicine class this fall at the University of North Georgia — a clever way to catch students’ attention, I’d hoped. As a full-time lecturer in the department of history, anthropology, and philosophy, I typically taught survey courses in world civilizations and American history. But last spring, I suggested that I also offer my class on the history of infectious disease, adding “If not now, when?” My chair approved the request.
Because none of my students would have been exposed to any history of medicine, “The History of Infectious Disease: Covid-19 in Context” was to start with seven weeks of introduction to the discipline. But the second half of the course was designed to speak to the current moment: In lieu of a traditional research paper, students could write a policy paper from the perspective of a historian advising a present-day institution on the way forward during this pandemic. The assignment would help students practice interpreting the past, and demonstrate how historical narratives could influence present-day policies. I was excited.
I could use our own university system as a case study in how political power often wins out over scientific knowledge.
As the fall semester approached, however, my enthusiasm began to collapse into worry and frustration. In the spring, the university announced that everyone would return to campus to teach face-to-face in the fall. Everything, administrators said, was Back to Normal. But things were by no means normal. I resumed checking the risk-tracking website CovidActNow.org, as I had every day the previous year. I looked up outbreak data for the county in which my campus was located, and checked Georgia Tech’s event risk calculator to assess how dangerous my classroom might be. I watched the Delta variant creep its way up Florida and into Georgia, even as our Board of Regents doubled down on its opposition to mask and vaccination mandates on public campuses. Was I really going to return to the classroom under such circumstances?
My university’s actions were unwittingly demonstrating the very lessons I was trained to teach. In previous semesters we might, as a class, have assumed that Philadelphia’s 1918 folly would never be repeated, that American leaders would — of course! — take standard public-health measures. This semester, however, there would be no false sense of security. Teaching the examples of St. Louis and Philadelphia would be particularly persuasive, since students were watching similar decisions play out daily in the news. In fact, I could use our own university system as a case study in how political power often wins out over scientific knowledge. This would be a powerful lesson, one students would be unlikely to forget. But did I want to be part of that? Did I want to be associated with an institution deliberately taking such dangerous steps?
The beginning of the semester drew closer, and my syllabus was almost done, but my misgivings continued to mount. My request to continue teaching online was refused, along with everyone else’s. One administrator encouraged us to consider only ourselves — “You’re vaccinated, so you have nothing to worry about!” — either misunderstanding or ignoring how easily the vaccinated can spread disease, and how spread accelerates variation. Another asserted that returning face-to-face was more stable for students, and therefore better for their mental health. But face-to-face courses would almost inevitably result in exposure, infection, and, in some cases, acute illness and lasting damage. My students were being asked to trust an institution that was actively placing them — their families, their communities — in danger.
I began to contemplate quitting my job. I was able to entertain that notion only because I have a partner whose income (and health insurance) would soften the financial hit. Still, the thought of it made me feel ill. Any step away from academe has the potential to become permanent. Leaving the job might mean sacrificing the chance to do the work for which I had spent the better part of a decade training. Those of us on the lower end of the academic ladder, in particular, feel the bite of the sunk-cost fallacy: We weigh each job against the years of graduate education, the enormous debt, and the personal sacrifices that we accepted in order to become scholars. And we weigh workplace conditions — like whether our institutions take steps to protect us from illness — against our love of working with students.
Ultimately, I could not be part of the university system’s perverse calculations. The Board of Regents had made decisions in direct defiance of the very kinds of knowledge that taxpayers trust our universities to produce, and consequently had engineered an experiment with the lives of students, faculty, and staff. Like Wilmer Krusen before them, the regents had chosen to put politics over public health, and as usual, the vulnerable will pay the price. I couldn’t function as a historian of science and medicine in the face of such ironies without suffering moral injury. I resigned from my position in mid-August, just a few days before my class was to begin.
Perhaps one day, another historian of medicine will start her class with an anecdote about two university systems: one that mandated masks and vaccinations, and one that did not. I know how that story ends.