June Leffler Published

Marshall Professor Gives Historical Context In COVID-19 Podcast

Chris White podcast

A new podcast highlights the “unsung heroes” in the fight against COVID-19 in West Virginia. Marshall University Professor Chris White interviews city and university officials, physicians and essential workers in the state. These guests reflect on their work, uncertainties and how far they’ve come in this open forum. A book-worm and lifelong learner, White also draws on historic examples of other global pandemics that have helped him contextualize our new normal. He spoke with June Leffler about the new podcast.

His podcast “COVID in West Virginia Podcast with Chris White” is available wherever you get your podcasts. He’s currently teaching a course called “The Path to COVID” and is co-authoring a book on Appalachian epidemics.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Leffler: Give me a sense of how you started on this, because my understanding is your interest in epidemics was starting even before COVID.

White: Correct. I was originally trained at the University of Kansas, as a historian of Latin American and US history. And my main area of interest within that was on the drug wars. So the more I’ve been teaching and researching about drugs and writing about it, the more I’ve become aware that a lot of these drugs that people are dying from today, were actually first widely distributed in order to treat epidemics back in the 19th century. So things like heroin and codeine and morphine and other drugs, in addition to alcohol, were widely prescribed over the counter in order to treat things like influenza, cholera, and many other infectious diseases.

Leffler: I would love to know how COVID compares to some other epidemics that you’ve been learning about recently.

White: The two that recently come to mind are the Asian and Hong Kong flus in 1957 and 1968. And collectively, they probably killed about 4 million people and that was when the population of the world was maybe, you know, half of what it is right now. It seems like the scale of infectivity and the fatality rates are similar. If we want to look at maybe how COVID is more dangerous than some others, then we can look to SARS. And interestingly enough SARS in 2003, had a high fatality rate, maybe 10% of the people who contracted it died. And they descended really quickly as well. Because of the high fatality rate, it actually may have contributed towards it burning out quickly, and not spreading so fast. Whereas with COVID, because people often times will be asymptomatic, they are spreading it unknowingly. And there’s also a long latency period where it’s just waiting around and then you know, people can contract it and it could take two weeks before they have any symptoms. And that’s different from what we saw with other past diseases. But if you look at HIV, it would sometimes take years before someone would come down with AIDS and it would actually start killing somebody.

There are really no two infectious diseases that are alike. Our imaginations really are limiting us on how we can respond to this. So if we imagine that COVID is the same as SARS, then that’s wrong. You know, that’s not enough historical examples. But if we think about how the Spanish Flu in 1918 killed 100 million people worldwide, or how the plague killed tens of millions of people, maybe a third of Europe in the night in the 1340s and 50s, that helps us understand the high level of possibilities of lethality that a pandemic can can cause. So we have to be aware of all those.

Leffler: Who are the kinds of people that you’re interviewing and why are you bringing them onto your show?

White: Having a podcast that’s specifically about our state, I think helps to highlight the fact that we have our own Anthony Fauci here. The more and more people listen to our podcast, the more they’ll get a sense of the interconnectedness of all these incredibly qualified and energetic people who the average citizen in West Virginia actually can have access to. That’s really where the work is being done is at the local and the state level, much more so than at the national level. The actual day to day work, and thinking and talking and planning sessions.That’s happening by human beings on the ground all around us and that’s and people who are close to us.