We’re going to start this story in a place you might not expect. Let’s go back to spring 2010, when Alexandre White, who is today an assistant professor of sociology and history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, was an Amherst senior. White was not normally a fine-arts kind of guy. But he was creating a sculpture, and he was really into it. “We were doing a section on welding, using a bunch of old construction material—pipe connectors, that sort of thing. I ended up welding a 6-foot-tall mosquito.” That’s right: a mosquito. White—someone who had never given much thought to a mosquito beyond slapping it—poured himself into his project, because that’s what a liberal arts education is for: exploring, experimenting, engaging. And the result amazed everyone, including White himself: “My mosquito was actually on the cover of Amherst’s art review magazine, The Frame.”
Looking back on it, he’s still proud of that work. But now he’s got a theory about what it was really all about. “I think before I even realized it, my unconscious was engaging with another fascination,” he says. That enormous metal mosquito was less random, in retrospect, than it might have seemed at the time. “A mosquito is a vector,” White says, “and it’s the vector that has caused humans the greatest levels of death from infectious disease throughout history.”
It wasn’t until two years later, at the London School of Economics and Political Science, that White really found himself immersed in the destruction left in a vector’s wake. His career would continue in the shadow of that 6-foot-tall mosquito, studying the place where disease and sociology intersect most profoundly. White is a historian of epidemics.
Epidemics, too, often begin in a place you might not expect. They may begin with the buzz of a mosquito, or with, say, a bat halfway around the world, which is how SARS-COV-2 seems to have begun. Viruses are funny beings—they find their own life only in the lives they can infect, and so they follow the seemingly random paths we animals take, highlighting connections we might not have realized were there.
Again, consider White’s academic trajectory. “I was a black studies major at Amherst,” he says. What does black history have to do with epidemiology? It’s all connected. “It was at Amherst that I became interested in understanding primarily European colonization, and the way it produced very real lived effects for people around the world today.”
White comes from a line of Amherst alumni—his great-grandfather Frederick Parker (one of a handful of black students at the College in that era) graduated in 1920, at the tail end of the influenza pandemic. White’s own graduation came in the wake of a financial recession, which may be one reason why his interests turned to the concepts of systemic crisis and risk.
But the mosquito still loomed. Undertaking his master’s degree in London, White began studying HIV and tuberculosis infection in South Africa. “I was looking at how apartheid structured certain aspects of the way these two diseases affected the South African population,” he says, “and the ways in which the two diseases and the political responses to them were categorizing new political subjects.” A very brief explanation of South African history: the black townships in Cape Town that came to characterize life under apartheid were partly created and upheld as quarantines during the bubonic plague of 1901. Those in power capitalized on a vulnerable population made even more vulnerable by illness. This example, which was a subject of White’s doctoral work at Boston University, is only one of many in which a society doesn’t become its best self in the face of crisis; in fact, we often double down on our most problematic tendencies.
White’s academic lens highlights how societies politicize outbreaks to marginalize and ostracize. But he sees reason for hope in our health crisis.
Epidemics are, first and foremost, biological phenomena—particular diseases are caused by particular pathogens that affect bodies in particular ways. “But the way we humans choose to manage them, societally or globally, often reproduce or allow to reemerge certain aggressive responses that betray some of our most deep-seated and prejudiced feelings about one another,” White says. He notes that in times of pandemics we often see upticks of what could be called social viruses: “If a country has a history of racist or xenophobic responses or policies, and those ideologies exist within the society, then it’s entirely likely that we might see some of the worst applications of those policies play out during an epidemic.”
White said this to me in March. By June, the headlines were proving his point. Black and Latinx communities were hit hard by COVID-19 on multiple fronts. Early data from National Public Radio found that in 21 U.S. states, African Americans were dying at significantly higher rates than white Americans. For example, as of late May, African Americans represented 27 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin, even though the state’s black population is only 6 percent. Black and Latinx Americans were also more likely to lose their jobs as a result of the lockdowns, and to have “essential worker” positions that put them at greater risk of getting sick.
“COVID-19, and epidemics in general, expose sharply the inequalities within society,” White told me in June, after the world felt changed—not only by the biological disruption of the virus but also by the social disruption resulting from a pandemic of a different kind. After the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, protests spread across the country, with many people holding signs that read, “I can’t breathe.” Some protesters wrote those words on their face masks, making a connection between racist systems even clearer. “Though the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ became a lament and a rallying cry for change after the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD [in 2014],” says White, “COVID-19 has added layers to its meaning. While death from murder by asphyxiation or through respiratory failure due to COVID-19 have different causes, the structural agents that have led to both police violence and the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 deaths in black American populations have the same roots—structural, intentional systems of racism that have produced our deeply unequal nation.” While the events of this spring may have felt extraordinary as we lived through them, to a scholar like White, they make perfect sense. Someday, when historians look back at this time, these events may even feel inevitable.