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From the Black Death to COVID-19: Airborne Diseases in History, Literature, and Culture

November 16 at 8:00 am - November 18 at 5:00 pm EST

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From the Black Death to COVID-19: Airborne Diseases in History, Literature, and Culture

November 16 at 8:00 am November 18 at 5:00 pm Virtual

This conference will discuss the role of the humanities in addressing trapped life, social distancing, and the history of epidemics and pandemics. In this context, an epidemic is understood as a temporally and spatially limited increased occurrence of disease with a uniform cause in human populations. Unlike an epidemic, a pandemic is not spatially limited.1 

Epidemics and pandemics are also recurring themes fictionalized in literary and cultural texts. Coping with such crises is illustrated through textual and figurative narratives and helps to express emotional and critical responses. Well-known cinematic and serial examples that depict pandemics and discuss the outbreak of a new airborne disease include Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Christian Alvart’s Sløborn, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Russell T. Davies’ Years and Years discusses, among other things, what global impact the detonation of an atomic bomb has on the social life of a family. Stephen King’s The Stand tells the story of a world that must build a new form of order and society after an outbreak of a superflu. Also, comics deal with pandemics and epidemics and depict the coping, social distancing, and isolation figuratively. These include Budd Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, Edwina Dumm’s Cap Stubbs and Tippie, and Dann Collins’ Sarszilla. These imaginaries often make important contributions to educating, edifying, and documenting the experience of dealing with the global challenges of epidemics and pandemics.2

The COVID-19 virus, which is primarily airborne, has led to a redefinition of the concept of human health, air in general, and air pollution in particular. As airborne diseases reflect an interaction between humans and their ecological environment, we would like to call for proposals that include topics from the health sciences and medical humanities perspective. This conference will trace the history of epidemic and pandemic disease, as well as airborne viruses. Air as such becomes a vehicle, as the transmissibility of viruses also to a certain degree results in and happens because of air pollution. The conference will address topics such as contagion and transmission, zoonotic diseases, infections, death, air, air pollution by viruses, social distancing in relation to history, media representations of disease and medicine, and vaccine controversies in an era of pandemics.

The purpose of this conference is to generate discussion among scholars, writers, and artists about the history of pandemics, the issues they raise, and the reflections (thinking, feeling, behaving) they provoke. Therefore, the event calls for a critical examination of medicine, ecology, crises, planetary health, and the future, and aims to demonstrate to the audience the urgency and importance of interdisciplinary research, with particular attention to the relationship between humans, history, health, and the environment.

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