How we will remember the COVID-19 pandemic
Professor promotes historical perspectives on pandemic outbreaks online

Esyllt Jones, a professor in the department of history, has launched Pandemic Histories, an online space dedicated to preserving and highlighting historical perspectives on epidemic and pandemic disease outbreaks. The website emphasizes the relationships between health, structural inequalities and lived experience.

Jones is also a professor in community health sciences, the dean of studies at St. John’s College, and the author of Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg.

“And for the next two years, I’m the faculty of arts humanities research professor,” Jones added.

“[The] faculty of arts began a new program last year, or earlier this year, that created two research professorships — one in the social sciences and one in the humanities. And it was an open application process, so I applied for a project that I call ‘Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.’”

The project has two components, the first being Pandemic Histories, and the second a history of community health. The second component examines the history of socialized medicine in Canada and the emergence of social movements such as feminism, Indigenous rights and community health models of care beginning in the late 1960s and ’70s.

“The two projects are kind of linked together in my mind because, in the aftermath of the influenza pandemic at the end of the First World War, eventually there was a significant push for the creation of a more accessible health-care system,” Jones said.

Pandemic Histories aims to reach a non-specialist audience.

“It’s less meant as a showcase for academic research and more as a place where academic research and interested members of the public can engage with each other,” Jones explained.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities around the world. In Winnipeg, the pandemic has caused a great deal of hardship for specific communities.

“I’m especially concerned about the experiences of non-elite members of society and the importance of preserving those groups that are frequently most impacted by pandemics,” Jones said.

“[Specifically] racialized groups, people of colour, Indigenous people, impoverished people living in inner cities, you know, poor rural families. I’d like to make sure that we don’t lose those stories.”

These stories are preserved and made accessible to researchers through archives. As a member of the Royal Society of Canada COVID-19 task force, Jones was involved with producing a policy paper urging supplemental support for archiving institutions in Canada.

Running counter to the memorialization mission of Pandemic Histories is the growing influx of misinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn out an incredible amount of misinformation regarding homeopathic medicines, vaccines and supposed miracle cures for the virus. While Pandemic Histories does not aim at tackling current misinformation about the ongoing pandemic, it does address the historical social context of facts and scientific discovery.

“It’s always important for us to understand that facts operate within a social context,” Jones said.

“And that’s something that historians of medicine and health and disease have a lot to say about, and something important to contribute on is the way we can understand the intersection between science and the societies in which it functions. So, I think it does help to understand, in a larger picture sort of way, where misinformation comes from and where it’s rooted.”

Jones highlighted the necessity of avoiding “the same phenomenon after COVID-19 that we had after the flu pandemic, which was this long-term historical forgetting, and really, an active forgetting.”

To forestall the cultural forgetting of COVID-19, Jones is inviting submissions to Pandemic Histories from a variety of communities, from a wide range of academics to members of the health-care community. Jones has offered her own reflection of her role as a pandemic historian in the time of a pandemic in her inaugural piece “On pandemic history and pandemic amnesia.”

The website also plays host to roundtables and webinars. Jones hopes to draw attention to the role of artists in major disease outbreaks and how artists have responded to and shaped our societal understanding of such outbreaks.

One such artistic reflection of the pandemic has been centred on the homepage of the site.

“If you go to the site right now, you have a wonderful screenshot from a project done by my friend Lilian Bonin, whose mother died of COVID-19 fairly early in the pandemic in Winnipeg,” Jones said.

During troubling times, people turn to art and spirituality to provide meaning to their experiences. One of Jones’s research interests is the emergence or popularization of spiritual practices in response to disease outbreaks. Jones said that despite the secular nature of modern North America, “there might very well be some spiritual sorts of movements that arise, [although] they might not look quite like spiritual wisdom” of past disease outbreaks.

“When […] there is a kind of mass death experience like this, there is the sense of, you know, having lost so many people, and this idea of these lost souls being in very close proximity with survivors. And that’s an important part of that early-20th century thing, is this sort of lack of a normal boundary between the living and the dead.”

Researchers at all stages of career and members of the health-care community are encouraged to submit to Pandemic Histories by visiting pandemichistories.ca.