You should write your Covid-19 story: The importance of medical humanities today

7th December 2020

Author: Samantha Allen Wright

Samantha Allen Wright is Assistant Professor of English at William Penn University, USA, and the author of American Life Writing and Medical Humanities: Writing Contagion.

Find out more about Samantha.

American writer Katherine Anne Porter almost died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Moved by her experiences, Porter wrote her semi-autobiographical novella, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” based on her memories. Her work, which has been praised for its hauntingly beautiful apocalyptic imagery, captures this time by describing the minutia everyday life during World War I and the influenza pandemic.

Not only do we get graphic depictions of influenza’s physical symptoms, but Porter also peppers her story with era-specific details: the pressure to buy war bonds when one has little money to spare; men feeling self-conscious of their military-issued wrist watches because “only sissies wore wrist watches”; and smoking, which was a fairly subversive habit for women. Since many scholars argue that the 1918 influenza pandemic was under-reported in the media in 1918 and still has relatively little scholarship, Porter paints a portrait of a forgotten time, serving as a reminder of a society upended from both war and pandemic.

Today, I find myself reading Porter’s novella over and over. I wonder what details a modern writer would recall about the COVID-19 pandemic. Panic buying? Working from home? Connecting with others via TikTok or Zoom? But I also find myself reading Porter’s novella as a sort of guide to this new world. Porter’s story captures the fear and devastation caused by the virus. The influenza pandemic ravaged nations across the world, killing millions, but societies did not collapse. Life continued on. Despite the severity of the pandemic, few writers penned their influenza stories from 1918, and I find myself grateful to Porter for sharing her story of great loss and hope.

That’s why you should write your COVID-19 story. As a literature scholar, I specialise in medical humanities, an emerging field which examines writing – as well as art, dance, and other forms of artistic expression – about illness, health, and the body to explore connections between medicine, health care, society, and culture. At first, medical humanities was largely engaged in health care education, using various forms of patient and health care worker writing and art to help train students to better understand the patient experience and become more ethical and empathic in their medical practice. However, more recently, medical humanities scholars have begun scrutinising more than just the patient-provider relationship, focusing on how medicine, health, and illness widely function in society and addressing issues such as health care disparities and public health. The goal of medical humanities is to explore the value of humanistic expression within medicine to improve health care for all.

In order to learn from COVID-19 – to improve and better understand health care through the biggest public health crisis of our time – we must share our COVID-19 stories. We need patients to record their experiences with a deadly new disease, which will help researchers better understand the COVID-19's pathology. We need health care workers to share the difficulties and uncertainties of treating patients, often without proper protection, for both historical records and for future policymaking. But we also need stories from a variety of perspectives. We need our students to discuss distance learning. We need government officials to share their decision-making process. We need to hear from those economically impacted by the pandemic. We need essential workers to describe their experiences and often-conflicting emotions as they go to work every day. We need these stories. And we need them from you.

COVID-19 is not and will not be underreported by the media or largely forgotten like the 1918 influenza pandemic. In fact, some actually argue the opposite: that COVID-19 has so much media coverage that we cannot make sense of the pandemic. But narrative accounts fill in the gaps from scientific studies and news reports. These stories capture public opinions and explain what numeric data cannot. We can better see the devastating effects of health care disparities on minority populations and the traditionally marginalised. We can get a better picture of where and how misinformation originates. And we can better understand one another's lived experiences. Medical humanities, in turn, is vital in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So during these troubling times, do your part. Wash your hands, wear a mask, and share your story.

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