SRU’s pandemic course takes on deeper meaning during coronavirus outbreak


1918 flu pandemic

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is a topic in a class now offered by Slippery Rock University called “Spotlight on the Past: Pandemic” that was designed last year but now, coincidentally, ties appropriately to the current coronavirus pandemic.

April 2, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When incoming freshmen at Slippery Rock University signed up last spring for a new course called "Spotlight on the Past: Pandemic," they had no idea the 2020 spring semester class would also shine light on the present, with the current coronavirus outbreak resulting in a global pandemic.

"My students must think I'm psychic," said Lia Paradis, associate professor of history, who teaches two sections of the 100-level liberal studies course. "It's just a bizarre coincidence that I am teaching this brand-new course right now."

Students like Jenna Kriley, a freshman biology major from Butler, signed up for the class to fulfill part of her liberal studies requirement, known as the Rock Integrated Studies Program, by selecting from a variety of seminar classes addressing topics, ranging from driverless cars to food justice. Kriley, who plans to attend medical school and become a surgeon after graduating from SRU, was interested in the topic of pandemics as a way to help inform her medical career.

"It's ironic," Kriley said. "(My classmates) talked about it before spring break, (saying,) 'What are the odds that we all signed up for a pandemics course and now we're in the middle of one?'"

Paradis came up with the idea for the class based on her expertise studying the events of World War I, which ended the same year as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 began, and how the war contributed to the global spread of the disease. Also, to prepare for the class, Paradis researched the bubonic plague - aka the Black Death - of the mid-1300s, and figured stories of "ghost ships" arriving ashore with deceased crew members, would capture students' attention.

Jenna Kriley


"(For the Spotlight courses) we use different moments in history and look at them through the lenses of all the different humanities disciplines," Paradis said. "It's a little bit of philosophy, literature, history, and the arts, to show students how people in the humanities ask and answer questions. Of course, analysis from the social and hard sciences is introduced as well to see how understanding of disease has changed over time.

"That's why it's important to study the humanities, because we ask questions about who we are, what's our place in the world, what do we owe other people and what should communities look like. Humans need to answer the same questions over and over again because these dilemmas come up over and over again. The coronavirus is proving that."

The class focuses on three pandemics throughout history: the Black Death, which killed an estimated 75-200 million people in Europe and Asia from 1347-51; the Spanish flu, which infected about a quarter of the world's population between 1918-20 and killed at least 50 million people; and HIV/AIDS, which, after an outbreak in the 1980s, has killed more than 35 million worldwide.

The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and designated as a pandemic March 11, 2020, by the World Health Organization. Coronavirus wasn't even mentioned in SRU's Pandemic class until a few weeks into the semester, but it soon became a daily discussion topic.

Parallels between the coronavirus and previous pandemics include racial prejudices, misrepresentation of disease name, socioeconomic privilege and irrational responses, like the hoarding of supplies. According to Paradis, examples include using the term Spanish flu, as geopolitical ploy, when there's evidence that flu originated in the U.S. at a military camp in Kansas before soldiers were deployed for World War I. Because of countries' news censorships during World War I, reports of outbreaks became more widely attributed to Spain, which was neutral during the war.

"We compared the buying of all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer (today) and the similar types of panic in the 1300s with people hoarding supplies and overall mass hysteria," Kriley said. "It's interesting to see parallels between the two given they are separated by more than 600 years. People might think we are nothing like we were in the 1300s, and obviously we're more evolved in our thinking about germ theories, but when it comes to social behavior, we're very similar."

What's different now is how easily information, or rather misinformation, is spread.

"People get their information from so many different places now and there are a lot more rumors spread than in the past," Paradis said. "Now, no one person can control all the information being released on the variety of outlets and that's extremely dangerous. The public in 1918 wasn't widely educated about germ theory and how viruses spread, but the federal government was able to launch campaigns and control information to protect people and have them behave the right way."

The interpretation of facts leads back to the original intent of the Spotlight courses, to get students to ask questions and seek "answers to the challenges of the human condition, both then and now."

"This class has helped us better process what's going on," Kriley said. "It's helped us understand what's going on socially and the mass hysteria that comes with pandemics. This is new to everyone right now because there hasn't been a pandemic (like the coronavirus) in 100 years. People are freaking out because it's something new, and they don't necessarily need to react certain ways, like hoarding toilet paper."

"(The coronavirus pandemic) has made the class more explicit," Paradis said. "It's really becoming an example of exactly what we are trying to illustrate to people, that everything that you learn from the past is valuable because it can help us understand our present much better."

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