Hsieh on Duffin, 'COVID-19: A History'

Jacalyn Duffin
Shinyi Hsieh

Jacalyn Duffin. COVID-19: A History. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022. 232 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-01411-9.

Reviewed by Shinyi Hsieh (University of California San Francisco) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (February, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58498

COVID-19: A History was published in May 2022, just eighteen months after the global pandemic began sweeping the world. As a historian who is also a physician, author Jacalyn Duffin is passionate about reflectively studying the current pandemic in a distinctive way, contextualizing COVID-19 on a global scale and in its ecological relation to the past, present, and future. Duffin’s historical account of the COVID-19 pandemic effectively captures the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and prior diseases and pandemics. When Duffin analyzes the history of COVID-19 at the present moment as an “emerging disease,” her goal is not exclusively academically oriented. Instead, Duffin’s approach illustrates her engagement with a wide range of current responses to the COVID-19 challenge, exhibiting hope toward the future for a broader audience, including healthcare professionals, educators, policymakers, and the general public.

This book is structured into three sections. Part 1 traces COVID-19’s emergence and global expansion during the first wave. In part 2, entitled “History and Context,” Duffin reviews the medical, political, social, and public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, part 3 illuminates the “human costs” behind the exacerbating number of cases and high mortality rates in successive waves and how the pandemic has become a social catastrophe, unevenly causing economic, political, and environmental problems among countries and reinforcing those that already existed. COVID-19: A History is organized in semi-thematic order and the twelve chapters overlap chronologically. The chapters cover abundant resources from academic scholarship, journalism, and other scientific and governmental reporting produced in the two-and-a-half years since the end of 2019. It is worth noting that readers are only able to access the references for this book through a digital link, as they are not published along with the print copy of the book. Since COVID-19: A History does not follow the common footnote or author-date citation style, it can be more challenging for the audience to pin down specific resources and materials by comparing the references and chapters.

Although pandemics have become a major theme in the history of medicine over the past few decades, it is unusual for historians to study a contemporary event like the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not yet over. “Can we write a history of something that is happening right now?” the author asks in the introduction (p. 6). To position this research as a historical project instead of journalism, Duffin refers to her mentor Mirko Grmek’s historical investigation into the rise of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, presented in History of AIDS (1990), at the time when the global AIDS pandemic had just begun. Drawing on Grmek’s concept of pathocenosis (Pathological Realities: Essays on Disease, Experiments, and History [2019]), Duffin accounts for the history of COVID-19, a seemingly novel “emerging disease,” by examining changes and continuities in the disease landscape within a wider ecological framework that extends over time and space. Grmek, and particularly his research on AIDS history, has been controversial due to the provocative and even offensive analogies and homophobic attitudes embedded in his writing. While some recent scholars argue that these attitudes “should not detract readers from its [Grmek’s argument] main point,” we should still acknowledge that the language might cause harm, and that it is essential to be highly aware and conscious of the context and its consequences before settling on any specific theoretical framework.[1]

Part 2 of the book begins with a quote from Grmek: “The history of each disease contributes to the history of all the others” (p. 53). By adopting Grmek’s “synthetic” approach, Duffin sheds light on the eventful temporality of historical research on science, medicine, and diseases. Her accounts of COVID-19 are contextualized in relation to other distant and recent disease events, ranging from the well-covered history of the bubonic plague to the more recent emergence of Ebola and SARS. Although Grmek seems to have had an intensive relation to social history, Duffin actually incorporates Charles Rosenberg’s “dramaturgic form” into her COVID-19 investigation by highlighting the similar series of stages of COVID-19 and how it transformed the world like previous epidemics and pandemics.[2] Duffin argues that COVID-19 will “serve as a reminder that pandemics past were not short, sharp episodes,” but that they all left “lasting changes” (p. 203).

By thinking of diseases as the product of an interconnected system of ecological relations, Duffin demonstrates that it is not just the legacy of predecessor pandemics but, more importantly, human intervention that destabilizes the ecological balance and results in new diseases evolving and spreading. The ecological perspective is essentially focused on maintaining a balance between all actors in the ecological system, ranging from humans, animals, and microbiomes to nature itself. Conceptualizing disease in this way is very different from the common war metaphor, which often views disease as an enemy and aims for its eradication.

As Duffin describes the improving measures for controlling COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic, it seems that scientific advancements and policy implementation receive the most attention, while civic capacity is somehow neglected throughout the narrative of the book. For instance, chapters 5, 7, and 8, on the development of COVID-19 testing, tracking, treatment, and vaccination, unpack the scientific communities’ global collaboration and how their experiences during earlier disease events (such as AIDS and SARS) had a significant impact on medical and public health implementations during COVID-19. Specifically, chapters 5, 6, and 11 share the similar topic of COVID-19 policymaking for prevention and control (for example, masking, quarantine, tracking, and vaccination) at the level of individual nations and across the scale of international politics. Although Duffin refers to several public responses, such as the anti-mask movement and vaccine hesitancy, the role of civic society portrayed in this book seems to be much more reactionary, as if those were mostly directed toward authorities and/or the policies and guidance launched by authorities. It is worth pointing out that cases such as those presented in this book mostly occurred in Western countries.

However, as other scholars have shown, civil society does have the strength to launch public reforms, such as those designed to manage the COVID-19 pandemic within democratic nations, without the obligation of having to follow the government or professional recommendations. As the social lessons learned from the first COVID-19 wave covered in this book show, bottom-up reflective responses to the pandemic on the part of the civil collective that can be attributed to traumatic pandemic experiences should also be considered. If we shift our focus from North America to the other side of the Pacific Ocean for just a second, we might begin to notice some recent historical cases in countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, where the public aimed for solidarity to collectively prevent themselves from repeating the damage caused by SARS.[3]

Indeed, the title of the book is COVID-19: A History, not the history, and the author does eagerly encourage scholars to publish more about this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, this idea appears to be more of a reference to the research limitations of the time period, rather than any concerns about geographical differences. This leads me to circle back to my concern about the title: as a researcher from the global South, I am genuinely interested in seeing more transnational analysis of knowledge and practices flow and reformulate between countries and regions, just as COVID-19 traveled between nations but impacted each differently. For example, the history of cleanliness and hygiene addressed in the book is again a Western side of the story, and I am looking forward to seeing its connections to the histories of Asia, Africa, and Latin America being represented in future studies, as they could have been incorporated into this book beyond just the statistics, policy records, and figures.

We all have our own standpoints, and it is absolutely not a problem to write from a North American point of view. There is no doubt that the Canadian COVID-19 situation is definitely well documented and analyzed extensively in this book, and readers will very much expand their understanding of Canada’s responses and debates over COVID-19 that took place in the first two-and-a-half years of the pandemic. However, does the title “A History” already assume either a Eurocentric or North American way of thinking? I do think it is essential to provincialize the global North and pluralize the histories of COVID-19 on a global scale. In fact, bringing forth the perspective of the global South will probably deepen the dialogue on the coloniality rooted in the unequal global vaccine distribution and other power dynamics in the global public health system that are only briefly addressed in this book.

Overall, COVID-19: A History is a richly informative work, weaving the considerable volume of data together to provide an understanding of how COVID-19 was experienced and managed from December 2020 to May 2022. This book is driven by a very strong concern encompassing deep interest in how we are to write a history that is currently ongoing, how we can capture disease moments that are embodied and suffered unequally, and how we can engage with the future in a hopeful and restorative way, thus preparing for other issues related to climate change and the next possible pandemic, while still carrying the memories of COVID-19 on our back. Despite its limitations, this book will provide great teaching material for medical education, and it will be an insightful resource for cross-disciplinary discussion between scholars in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, the humanities, and the social sciences, as well as for generating dialogue between academics and the general public to encourage civic engagement.


[1]. Pierre-Olivier Méthot, “Mirko Grmek’s Investigative Pathway," in Pathological Realities: Essays on Disease, Experiments, and History, ed. Pierre-Olivier Méthot (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 20.

[2]. Charles E. Rosenberg, “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective,” Daedalus 118, no. 2, Living with AIDS (Spring 1989): 1-17, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20025233.

[3]. See Bin Xu and Ming-Cheng M. Lo, “Toward a Cultural Sociology of Disaster: Introduction,” Poetics 93, part A (August 2022): 101682, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2022.101682; Licheng Qian, “Making Memory Work: The SARS Memory and China’s War on COVID-19,” Memory Studies 14, no. 6 (2021): 1489-1502, https://doi.org/10.1177/17506980211054358; and Jung Won Soon and Jae Kwang Lee, “The Smart City as Time-space Cartographer in COVID-19 Control: The South Korean Strategy and Democratic Control of Surveillance Technology,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 61, nos. 4-5 (2020): 482-92, https://doi.org/10.1080/15387216.2020.1768423.

Citation: Shinyi Hsieh. Review of Duffin, Jacalyn, COVID-19: A History. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58498

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