Understanding the Outbreak


Over the coming months, UMass Press will publish two works that shed light on the histories of pandemics. Katherine A. Foss’s Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory (September 2020) and Charles Allan McCoy’s Diseased States: Epidemic Control in Britain and the United States (July 2020) offer much needed direction on how we can best operate within the limits of the disease control systems that we have inherited and the ways in which media and our leaders can openly and effectively communicate with the public at this unprecedented time.

As nations around the world try to understand and contain COVID-19, we have witnessed how current public health policy is shaped by political discourse and partisan divides. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Foss, professor of journalism and media studies at Middle Tennessee State University, recognizes that Trump has approached the pandemic in a strikingly different way from political leaders in past public health crises, by minimizing the threat and presenting misinformation. “We’ve never had a political leader say stuff like this . . . At the same time, what we can’t do is just have media messages that focus on his words and not address practical things that people can do,” she said.

Her forthcoming book, Constructing the Outbreak, reveals how news reporting on epidemics communicates much more than information about pathogens—rather, prejudices, political agendas, religious beliefs, and theories of disease also shape the messages coming into Americans’ homes.

With the U.S. becoming the epicenter of the pandemic, Foss contends that “The study of past epidemics has never been more relevant than now. Many of history's lessons apply in our COVID-19 pandemic, from the process of quarantine to the unsung heroes of the outbreak. Even with changing platforms, media outlets and professionals serve many of the same vital roles and functions now as they did in the 1918 influenza pandemic and others in the past. Constructing the Outbreak isn't just about the past. Its messages directly apply to society's current and future battles with disease.”

Charles Allan McCoy’s Diseased States, a comparative study of the development of disease control in Britain and the United States from the 1790s to today, offers a blueprint for managing pandemics in the twenty-first century, and proves how inseparable contagion is from the social and political realities of the moment. The development of the outbreak in the United States has admittedly illuminated the holes in our public health systems, revealing the vulnerability of health care workers, service-sector employees, those with chronic illnesses, and our marginalized and unprotected citizens. 

When asked to comment on the evolving situation in the United States, McCoy, assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Plattsburgh, offers the reminder that we have turned to public health tools developed over a century and a half ago to get us through this crisis—namely, quarantine and border controls.

“To understand how the United States, and other countries, are responding to the coronavirus we have to understand not only what that virus is like, but we also have to understand ourselves; specifically, we have to understand how our system of disease control is organized, how it has developed from the nineteenth century onwards, and how it can be used against COVID-19,” he said.

While multiple models of disease control jockeyed for position across the twentieth-century, McCoy sees the system developed in the U.S. dominating. “With a globalized world and an emphasis on ‘global health governance,’ countries feel the need to adopt one standard model of disease control and it seems that the American model has won out.”

But, only time will tell whether this system is the one best suited to the complex circumstances presented by the coronavirus.