Online Lecture on Pandemic Storytelling: Erica Charters and Rita Charon

Thursday, November 12, 2020, 7:00pm


Erica Charters (University of Oxford): How Epidemics End: Narratives and Disease

Erica  Charters Copyright: © Erica Charters


Historians of medicine have long pointed out that epidemics are only partly biological events; they are fundamentally social and cultural. Unlike endemic disease, which persists without acknowledgement, epidemics are actually dramatic narratives in which society and its internal tensions take centre stage. But as narratives, how then do epidemics end? An epidemic is understood to have ended when the dramatic narrative it unleashed fades from public discourse, and the disease thus fades into obscurity. This talk will examine the ending of epidemics, focusing in part on the end of the Second Plague Pandemic, and probing what the ‘end’ of an epidemic means.


Erica Charters is a historian of disease, war, and empires. She is Associate Professor of Global History and the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford, where she is also Director of Oxford’s Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and co-Director of Oxford’s Centre for Global History. She has published on the history of colonial medicine as well as the history of imperial war and its relationship to disease. Her recent publications include the co-edited volume A Global History of Early Modern Violence and a spotlight journal issue on the history of epidemics in the context of COVID-19 . She is currently coordinating a multi-disciplinary project on ‘How epidemics end’.

Recommended Reading:

Charters, Erica, Richard A. McKay. “The history of science and medicine in the context of COVID‐19“ in Centaurus Vol. 62 (2). Spotlight Issue: Histories of epidemics in the time of COVID‐19, May 2020, p. 223-233

Nükhet, Varlik. “Rethinking the history of plague in the time of COVID‐19“ in Centaurus Vol. 62 (2). Spotlight Issue: Histories of epidemics in the time of COVID‐19“, May 2020, p. 285-293


Rita Charon (Columbia University): Black Lives Matter and COVID: The Doomed US

Rita Charon Copyright: © Rita Charon


The US pandemic began in winter 2020 with the SARS-CoV-2 virus but quickly became a political pandemic, with ever-more-polarized arguments about federal/state responsibilities, scientific/political priorities, and the by-then-familiar cries of fake news. COVID-19 infected and killed more poor persons of color than others. By May 25, when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, the country erupted into a prolonged and increasingly violent racist/anti-racist confrontation.

At the start of the viral pandemic, front-line workers gave eloquent testimony, health care workers and patients gathered on Zoom to reduce social isolation and create community, and everybody read La Peste. Once the Black Lives Matter protests started, the story-telling shifted to exposing the racist past and present of this country. I will display some of the art work viewed during the pandemics as a means to track the doom of this country, from which we may or may not survive (I write this before our presidential election on November 3).