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Pandemics and History: Wilkes Dean Offers Perspective

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In our current crisis, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 has attracted a lot of attention. One interesting fact about the “Spanish flu” is that, despite its name, researchers have not reached a consensus on its origin. In recent days (as I write these lines on April 22), the long duration of the 1918-1920 flu has been noted by experts along with the fact that the second and third peaks were much worse than the first. Of course, COVID-19 and H1N1 flu are not the same pathogen, but based on previous pandemics experts are worried about reoccurrence and urging us to prepare.

History also tells us that the road to full understanding is long. We are still discovering important facts about the Black Death, mostly through DNA evidence and the study of medieval birth and death records. Recent research on the 1918-1920 pandemic has revealed, through analysis of the health records of millions of veterans, the lasting costs of influenza. Men born during the pandemic struggled for the rest of their lives with various negative impacts, including higher rates of incarceration, heart disease, and mental illness. Similar impacts have even been detected from a far less serious flu pandemic in the 1890s.

My personal reflections on the pandemic are probably similar to most people. Amid concern for workers in other circumstances, I feel fortunate to be working remotely and thankful for my own good health so far. I worry about elderly members of my family as well as other family and friends who are still reporting for work. And I grieve along with those who have experienced losses.

As an educator, I wonder what Wilkes University will look like when this is over.  Our immediate future is uncertain, but we all look forward to resuming our work on campus. Imparting knowledge and wisdom to students is a face-to-face business. It takes place in the classroom and lab, at clinical sites, in residence halls, on practice fields, in the TV studio and in the art gallery – in lots of ways that remote instruction (as useful as it has been in meeting this crisis and as important as it is in normal times) struggles to replicate. We have faith in a future that includes a place for residential university education.  And we hope that our Wilkes alumni community will help us in making this case to the public so that our university can return to its work and continue to thrive.

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