I picked up a copy of Epidemics and Society in November of 2019, having no idea it had just been published, nor any hint of what would happen in China only a few weeks later. I thought that, well, I was trying to write a pandemic in my current NaNoWriMo novel and maybe some research would help…
Epidemics and Society is the best book on understanding the intersection of medicine and history I’ve ever read. When I took history classes in high school and college, public health was treated like a thing separate from historical events. This book shatters that illusion and shows that many points of upheaval took place during or directly after an epidemic of some sort.
It starts early with explanations of our understanding of disease and moves through history, epidemic by epidemic, around the world. Each is explained in context of the politics, public health policies, epidemiology, and even economics that impacted the response to the pandemic.
Ultimately the lesson is simple: all this has happened before, and all this will happen again. The best we can do is make public health a critical priority both in times of low concern and times of epidemic.
Also, hug your healthcare workers (consensually) because they’ve been through a hell of a ride for centuries now.
I was a kid when AIDS hit America, and I didn’t begin to really understand what had happened, and why, until probably about 10 years ago. But pandemics are tricky (maybe you’ve noticed) and the experience that we hear about from news articles and retrospectives from the survivors — especially those who didn’t have AIDS themselves — can be very different from the lived experience of those who had (or have) AIDS and those who cared for them.
MK Czerwiec’s book is the story of a nurse who started in nursing by caring for those with AIDS, and whose heart has been there ever since. The book covers the time period from 1993 (essentially) to the closing of Unit 371 in 1999. It takes place in a hospital in Chicago. It explains how Unit 371 had to treat their patients differently from other patients in the hospital, and why… and what the consequences of those differences were for the patients inside.
For me, this book fills a gap in knowledge. I know the history of AIDS as captured in journalism and even in history books — Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present has an entire section dedicated to the AIDS epidemic. And I know how people like me who didn’t have AIDS or even know anyone with it reacted, because I lived it. MK Czerwiec fills the gap with what it was like to be there, to be immersed in it, and to come out the other side.