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Event Report GHH Seminar 144: COVID19: Inter-disciplinary approaches

Posted on 25 June 2020

This seminar, hosted at the University of York in early March, analysed the political, historical, and anthropological context of the current outbreak of COVID-19, with a particular focus on the Chinese response.

Dr Owain Williams, from the University of Leeds, is an expert on the political economy of health policy. He spoke about key aspects of the COVID-19 response, including measures in China where almost half the population was restricted from travelling. He outlined the tension that arose between the government and its people and the emergence of conspiracy theories and mistrust. Regarding the early global response, Dr Williams described the fear-driven and chaotic reaction of Japan and the United States, and the limited ability of the World Health Organisation to do much political or financially. The start of the outbreak revealed weaknesses in the global supply chain and in the market. Pharmaceutical companies seemed unwilling to enter into vaccine production for the virus. He warned that this outbreak will also reveal the chronic under investment in health systems in developing countries.


Historian Xiaoping Fan from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore spoke about the origin of China’s systems for public health emergency responses. They began with the country’s cholera epidemic in 1961-1965. During this time, the premise for quarantine and isolation emerged, and the most affected province of Wenzhou was partitioned into concentric circles with observation stations set up along railway lines. The entire population in the province was inoculated. Record-keeping, data collection, and coordination of local officers was poor at first but evolved into strong systems for epidemic surveillance.


Katherine Mason, a medical anthropologist at Brown University, reviewed the 2003 SARS epidemic. She explained that SARS had an enormous impact on public health in China, which prior to the early 2000s had not invested in its old epidemic infrastructure. With SARS, the government began recruiting thousands of health experts and investing in surveillance systems, creating a biomedical and technology-based discipline. With SARS, the Chinese government learnt that draconian actions were necessary, despite the doubts of other countries. The United States, for example, did not ban travel when the H1N1 outbreak began in North America—a response that demoralised health workers in China, Professor Mason said. Since COVID-19, the main change has been in social media, which is showing that ordinary citizens are increasingly willing to voice discontent.


The Centre for Global Health Histories would like to thank the Wellcome Trust and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission for their support, as well as our collaborators at the World Health Organisation, and of course our speakers for making the event possible.


Event report by Alexandra Bradbury. MA, Medical History, University of York.