New UMN class to offer COVID-19 historical context

A May term course looks to examine the global historical context behind COVID-19 policy decisions.

According to the Minnesota Medical Association, 70–80% of people up to the age of 18 have forgone regularly scheduled check-ups and vaccinations since the pandemic began.

Eva Berezovsky

According to the Minnesota Medical Association, 70–80% of people up to the age of 18 have forgone regularly scheduled check-ups and vaccinations since the pandemic began.

Jasmine Snow

A new May term course aims to put the COVID-19 pandemic response into a global historical context. 

“HMED 3940: History Making: Epidemics, Politics and Coronavirus” looks to examine the historical context of epidemics and public health policies in China and the U.S. The course is a collaboration between several professors within the History of Science, Technology and Medicine program.

The class will take a look at past epidemics, such as the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2003 SARS outbreak, and how public health policy decisions made at that time inform current actions by the U.S. and China. 

“The most broad takeaway of the course will be that the political and public reactions to the COVID-19 epidemic are shaped by the places that they’re occurring [in], by the people, by public policies, by historical responses and by different societal beliefs and structures relating to individual and collective rights [and] well-being,” said Macey Flood, who will be instructing the class. 

The course, which will be taught entirely online, is worth one credit and will be open to both students and the general public. 

Flood, who specializes in 19th and early-20th century medicine in the U.S., said she looks forward to learning from expected guest lecturers, including fellow historian Jennifer Gunn who specializes in the history of public health. 

“I don’t study Chinese history at all, so I’m going to learn a lot by just putting [the class] together,” Flood said. “I think that’s an incredible opportunity for students, and it’s a great opportunity for me.”

Gunn will focus primarily on the context of past pandemics. As a historian, she is excited that her work is so closely tied to an ongoing conversation.

“I think what’s really exciting about this class is just that we have put materials into a folder, so to speak, over the last month and a half every day,” Gunn said. “What [the class] will be by the time it gets taught … will be an absolutely fresh, ‘happening in the moment’ thing, as well as the historical perspective. To me, that’s really exciting. I think that’s really cool.”

Ann Waltner, chair of the history department, contributed to the project and continues to collaborate on the curriculum.

Some students and University of Minnesota graduates showed interest when the history department announced the course. University alumna Laura Murphy has not decided if she will take the course yet but said the historical context piqued her interest.

“This one really stood out to me,” she said. “I’m not a ‘history person’ … but I think there’s a lot of learning from the past involved with the pandemic … [and then] taking that knowledge, leveraging it and figuring out how to get through this thing based on facts.”

First-year student Emma Roy said that while she has yet to decide on a major, a combined interest in the subject matter and a recommendation from Gunn persuaded her to register. 

“I’ve discovered that I really enjoy learning about historical pandemics and comparing past health policies to current [policies],” she said. “I like staying up to date on different health-related things, and so taking a class that is about a current issue is really important to me.”