The Coronavirus: Human, Social, and Political Implications

By Sarah Rogers // March 25, 2020

Banner image: Franklin Humanities Institute Associate Director Christina Chia participating in the online panel via Zoom. Photo by Megan Mendenhall.

UPDATE: The event recapped below led to the publication of an essay collection, The Coronavirus: Human, Social and Political Implications (Palgrave Pivot 2020), edited by James Miller by Duke Kunshan University. Learn more about the volume from the DKU Humanities Research Center website.

In February 2020, after Duke Kunshan University closed its campus and shifted to online instruction in order to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, a group of DKU faculty became residents at Duke University. These included two new residents at the Franklin Humanities Institute: James Miller, Associate Dean of Interdisciplinary Strategy and Co-Director of the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University, and Tim Smith, the Humanities Research Center Lab Manager.

Soon after their arrival at FHI, Miller and Smith began organizing a web panel on the coronavirus and its far-reaching implications, with the goal of continuing to instruct DKU students, most of whom had returned to their family homes following the campus closure. After consideration, they added a second, in-person panel to take place at the Franklin Humanities Institute, in order to facilitate conversations and connections between DKU and Duke University faculty.

With the support of the Franklin Humanities Institute, the two panels convened on March 3, 2020. They featured brisk mini-presentations from faculty and students on the human, social, and political implications of the coronavirus. Interdisciplinarity was key; speakers came from fields as diverse as global health, journalism, history, political science, Chinese cultural studies, and cultural anthropology.

“As we live in a world of continued global interdependence, [we] need to learn lessons to be able to respond effectively in the future, from a public health perspective,” said Duke Kunshan University Assistant Professor of Global Health Benjamin Anderson, who spoke on the epidemiology of COVID-19.“But…these other factors, social factors, economic factors, political factors, are only going to continue to become even more important in those response efforts.”

Many speakers pointed to the ways in which the current pandemic’s causes and effects extend into numerous spheres, including US-China relations, finance, state surveillance and censorship, and ecology - drawing comparison to another global phenomenon likely to have hugely disruptive effects, climate change.

Carlos Rojas, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and DKU Humanities Research Center Co-Director, noted that while the short-term effects of the pandemic included lower carbon emissions, global climate change would require a “permanent response” to successfully mitigate its impacts. Duke University Associate Professor of History Nicole Barnes pointed out that deforestation and ecological devastation brought humans closer to animals in ways that facilitated zoonotic transfer of viruses such as COVID-19.

Photo of colloquium on Coronavirus: 4 speakers in foreground, audience members in back
During the in-person session of the March 3 panels, Duke University Professor of Cultural Anthropology Ralph Litzinger (second from left) said there had been very little discussion of how migrant workers of numerous kinds of populations in China had been coping with COVID-19. Also pictured: Carlos Rojas (far left), Tim Smith (second from right), and James Miller (far right). Photo by Avery Rhoades.

Duke University Professor of Political Science Melanie Manion commented on the “information challenges” of the moment, saying that ordinary citizens might find it hard to tell the difference between information and disinformation, due to intentional misdirections by political leaders. Rojas referred to COVID-19 as an “infodemic” as well as pandemic.

Others reminded the listeners of the human impacts of the coronavirus, whether the effects of life under quarantine or medicalized racism in the United States. Duke Kunshan University Associate Professor of Digital Media Benjamin Bacon invited listeners to contribute to a digital memory archival project related to COVID-19. Yanping Ni, a Master’s student in East Asian Studies, described how residents of Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19 in China, used social media to create semblances of ordinary life in a time of emergency, and Duke University undergraduate student Chen Chen spoke about writing an article for the Duke Chronicle about Wuhan, her hometown, to which she remains strongly connected.

The panels were well-attended, with nearly 200 participants in the earlier web session and 40 in the later session in the Franklin Humanities Institute’s Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall.

“If there has been a silver lining, it has brought the two campuses together,” James Miller said.

Full videos of both panels are available below. A full list of speakers is available on the Duke Kunshan University Humanities Research Center website.