HHH autumn meeting 2022: Policing pandemics

On Friday September 16, our autumn meeting “Policing pandemics: Medical history meets policymaking” took place online. We were hoping to meet in person, but public transport difficulties led us to switch to the online option. Although we missed catching up with fellow HHH members, the online meeting meant other members, who would not have been able to come to Utrecht, could attend too. And despite the late change, the meeting featured lively discussions as well as some exciting moments. If you missed the meeting, you can find a summary of the afternoon and recordings of the lectures by Roel Coutinho and Alex de Waal below.

Policing pandemics: Medical history meets policymaking

The theme of our autumn meeting came from realising that, in the enormous public health emergency that was (and is) the COVID-19 pandemic, medical historians were seldom asked for advice by politicians or included in expert groups. The lack of interest in medical history brings about the question: can history offer something to health policy? Can we learn from history, or should history remain separate from policy discussions? To answer these questions, we invited scientists, policymakers and of course historians to give us their perspectives.

Roel Coutinho, About Q-fever, smallpox and influenza: Lessons learned from the past

After the welcome by Frank Huisman, the meeting started with a talk by Roel Coutinho. Drawing on his experience as former Director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control of the RIVM and co-supervisor of Floor Haalboom’s thesis on dealing with zoonoses, Roel guided us through outbreaks of different infectious diseases over the past few decades. He firmly stated that learning from past outbreaks and responses is not only possible, but also useful, as it may help to prepare for future emergencies. According to him, broadening expert advice and consulted disciplines is crucial.

Alex de Waal, New pandemics, old politics

The meeting continued with the keynote lecture by Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and fellow at the London School of Economics. Alex started his lecture by comparing politics in the COVID-19 age with politics at the time of past epidemics such as cholera. Surprisingly, some political attitudes that we have witnessed in the last two years (denial of the pandemic’s gravity, wish to forget) are not new at all. Yet, compared to past epidemics, other things have changed drastically. We have lost the concept of “pandemy”, the idea that an outbreak, instead of just being the spread of “x” disease, provokes a holistic disruption of society. Together with this concept, we lost the potential of the social sciences to intervene in pandemic matters. Alex concluded by suggesting that the current biomedical model we use to understand pandemics may not be suited to facing future outbreaks.

Stichting Historia Medicinae master’s thesis prize

The next item on the programme was the announcement of the first Stichting Historia Medicinae master’s thesis prize winner. Professor Arie Nieuwenhuijzen Kruseman awarded the prize to Chiara Lacroix, for her thesis entitled “Birth of the human being: Historicising the notion of human in the study of reproduction”. Arie Kruseman also reminded the audience of the funding and prize opportunities by the foundation, which can all be found on the Historia Medicinae website.

Round table on history and policymaking

The final academic intervention in the meeting was a round table in which both the policymakers’ and the historians’ perspectives were represented. The participants included Anja Schreijer, Director at the Pandemic & Disaster Preparedness Centre, Robert Vonk, advisor at the Council for Public Health and Society and medical historian, and Rina Knoeff, medical historian and Director of the Groningen Centre for Health and Humanities. Chaired by Hieke Huistra, the three participants exchanged their often contrasting positions on whether history can be useful to health policy. For a taste of their different views, you can read the posts published by Robert Vonk and by Rina Knoeff on our website.

Farewell to Irene Geerts

At the end of the meeting, Gemma Blok addressed Irene Geerts in a farewell speech from the HHH board, thanking her for her work in turning the network into a vibrant community. Among other things, Irene was responsible for creating this website, for sending out our regular newsletter, for publishing our monthly columns, and lastly, for training the new HHH web editor Chiara Lacroix. We wish Irene the best of luck in the final stages of her PhD project.

We hope to see many of you in our next HHH meeting in spring 2023!