Humanities as Essential Services

They can be a vital part of the pandemic response through immediate, translational, front-line work, argues Kirsten Ostherr.

May 21, 2020
 
 
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In times of crisis, when we face complex challenges like global pandemics, we need a collaborative response that transcends disciplinary boundaries and offers novel approaches to vexing problems. In the current moment, biologists, engineers and others in fields with established pipelines for translational research have sprung into action, working together to create life-saving diagnostics and therapeutics to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet it isn’t always so obvious how scholars in the humanities can contribute to the front-line response.

But I’ve seen firsthand the valuable role that the humanities can play in public health. More than a decade after finishing my Ph.D. in American studies, I went back to school to pursue a master of public health degree. I was motivated by something I had observed through my own research: a huge gap between public health as an applied practice and public health as an object of historical and theoretical work in the humanities. Public health fieldworkers, for the most part, weren’t reading humanities research, and humanities scholars weren’t focused on the current demands of health communication. As a result, neither side was benefiting from the expertise of the other, and common causes were going unrecognized.

But something unexpected happened during my training. When I took the required epidemiology course, all of the students had to select and give presentations on a book that provided historical context for an important disease outbreak of the past. The professors explained that “data without context is meaningless,” and therefore, as students of epidemiology, we must learn how to construct meaningful narratives that link human behavior to data about disease. The list of books we could choose was full of humanities scholarship, including my own first book, much to my surprise. The professors did not know in advance that the author would be in the class, and I certainly had not written the book as an epidemiology textbook, or even as a history of a specific disease. Full disclosure: no one picked my book for their presentation. But the incident still convinced me that the connection between the humanities and public health was real. In this case, humanities scholarship was literally part of public health training.

That example points to one of the ways that humanities scholars can contribute to the current pandemic: by engaging in long-term, big-picture research that brings humanities questions to bear on public health. This kind of work provides critical historical and cultural context and can broaden the perspectives of public health and medical trainees.

A current open-source coronavirus syllabus contains a substantial bibliography of resources from the humanities and interpretive social sciences, demonstrating the relevant work that already exists in these fields. The list includes literary analysis of the stories that communities and governments tell in epidemics, explaining why their narrative form matters. It includes research showing how and why panics about contagion “infect” financial markets, as well as global health histories that illuminate the role of racism and xenophobia in making different parts of the world seem to be more or less vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious disease.

This kind of work is familiar to scholars in the humanities -- it is what many of us already do, and it can help improve our collective preparedness for the inevitable pandemics of the future. For public health officials who are out on the front lines telling governments and citizens what to do, this kind of research is invaluable, but it needs to be more readily accessible. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx cannot read a 200-page book before their next press briefing; they need concise, concrete guidance that is available right now.

Needed: Translational Humanities

This brings us to a second way that the humanities can be part of a pandemic response: through front-line, immediate translational work. The current outbreak has revealed some alarming weaknesses in our public health infrastructure, and we desperately need research to develop fast, cheap field test kits, ventilators and vaccines. But research in the medical humanities has long shown that health cannot be attained and illness cannot be vanquished through biomedical or technical interventions alone. This pandemic has made the human fragility of our response infrastructure abundantly clear, and we need to understand how our decisions about whose life matters will shape the future to come. Vaccines won’t help if huge sections of the population believe they are part of a government or corporate conspiracy. Ventilators won’t save the lives of patients who are unable to access health care due to systemic racism. We need translational humanities now to complete our technological and biomedical response.

What role can the humanities play in addressing such issues right now? Scholars in Asian American studies can identify and document xenophobia, and they can disseminate those findings in real time to legal advocates. Media scholars can draw on their knowledge of contagion films to alert health organizations to harmful visual iconographies and suggest alternatives. Literary scholars can identify how narratives are being used to spread misinformation, and they can advise health communicators how to create compelling counternarratives to challenge the fictions of conspiracy theorists. Creative writers can draw on their narrative expertise to craft compelling stories that help us imagine a path forward and the steps we could take to get there -- a “science fiction prototyping” for pandemic response.

Similarly, researchers in African American studies can bring their knowledge of community-based resistance and survival to the attention of city governments so as to intervene in racially discriminatory approaches to testing and referral for care. Artists can respond to the United Nations’ call for creatives to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Historians of medicine can distill their findings to inform public health practice, as participants in the World Health Organization’s Global Health Histories translational seminars have done since 2004. The government of Germany has recognized the value of humanities' contributions to the pandemic, enlisting philosophers, historians, theologians and jurists to provide guidance during and after the crisis.

If humanities scholars want to be part of the response to the pandemic, we must also consider the needs of the front-line workers who could benefit from our research. This may require stylistic adaptation. By translating our scholarly work for broader publics, humanities authors can influence debates, right now, about what to do. When the governor of Louisiana formed a Health Equity Task Force in early April to investigate health disparities resulting from COVID-19 in his state, none of the participants were from humanities disciplines. Yet researchers working on the intersections of gender, race and class could have advised state leadership months earlier that women of color would be disproportionately affected by the crisis. Persistent, targeted op-eds and proactive engagement with government could direct policy makers to consider the needs of vulnerable communities at the outset of the next outbreak, not four months into the disaster.

Becoming part of the front-line response may also require expanding the scope of our research projects, as we reimagine the audience for the work. We should be training our students to do the same. Participating in the pandemic response requires robust, sustained, long-term dialogue with intended publics beyond the academy, and most critically, it demands that we incorporate their needs into the formulation of research topics. Humanities-trained scholars have shown the value of clinical engagement with visual art and literature for fostering empathy and tolerance for ambiguity in medical students. But many physicians working on COVID-19 wards feel unprepared for the human toll of so much suffering and uncertainty. Humanities researchers should reframe their interventions based on the accounts of health-care workers during this pandemic. Moreover, this effort should be extended to address other hard-hit workplaces, such as nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons. This shift in orientation may be the hardest but also the most impactful one we can make. Being of service does not require being subservient, but it does demand a realignment of priorities.

This effort must extend into our classrooms, so that undergraduate and graduate students learn to establish transdisciplinary collaborative relationships, frame their research questions and disseminate their findings in forms that will serve the needs of front-line responders when the next crisis breaks. This is true for many fields of humanities research, not just those related to health. The climate crisis poses similar challenges and must be met with adaptations to the ways we train future scholars to imagine the purpose of their research. Now and in the future, the humanities can help save lives, if we bring our work to the front lines, where it belongs.

Bio

Kirsten Ostherr is Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English, incoming chair of the English department and director of medical humanities at Rice University.

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