December 3, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Past Pandemics Remind Us Covid Will Be an Era, Not a Crisis That Fades’

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Featured Article: “Past Pandemics Remind Us Covid Will Be an Era, Not a Crisis That Fades” by Gina Kolata

After nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are asking when, and if, there will ever be an end. However, as the science reporter Gina Kolata writes, “History repeatedly demonstrates how difficult it is to decisively declare that a pandemic is over.”

In this lesson, you will learn more about the history of pandemics and the lessons they offer for understanding the present and future of our own. In a Going Further activity, you will create an artwork that captures what life is like during the Covid era for future generations.

Imagine you have been asked to create an artwork that captures what it is like to live through the coronavirus pandemic for future generations.

What images, words, sounds, people, places and stories would you include? What would you hope viewers — 10, 20 or even hundreds of years from now — would see and understand about what it is like to live through this period? What feelings or emotions would you want to convey?

Take several minutes to sketch or describe what you might include in your artwork. Then, share it with a partner and discuss what is similar and different in your depictions.

Next, look closely at “The Triumph of Death,” an oil painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1562, above (or the full-size image). The famous work depicts the bubonic plague that had ravaged Europe 200 years earlier.

Then, respond to these four prompts:

  • What is going on in this painting?

  • What do you see that makes you say that?

  • What more can you find?

  • What story do you think Bruegel, the artist, wanted to tell about the plague? How does his painting compare with your artwork from earlier in the warm-up? What aspects of Bruegel’s painting resonate with your own feelings and experiences during the current pandemic?

Read the article and then answer the following questions:

1. Why do you think Gina Kolata begins the article with a discussion of Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death”? How did the painting illuminate “the psychic impact” of the bubonic plague that had ravaged Europe 200 years earlier, according to the writer?

2. Ms. Kolata quotes Allan Brandt, a historian of science and medicine at Harvard University, who says: “We tend to think of pandemics and epidemics as episodic. But we are living in the Covid-19 era, not the Covid-19 crisis.” What does this mean? Why is that distinction important? Do you think we will be dealing with “ramifications” for decades, as Mr. Brandt argues?

3. How is the coronavirus pandemic similar to or different from past pandemics? Give two examples from the article. Why is knowing the history of pandemics important for living through the present one, according to Ms. Kolata? What can it teach us?

4. Look at the photos in the article: What can you tell from them about the impact of past pandemics? Which one stands out to you most and why?

5. How has the Covid-19 virus “humbled” experts who have tried to confidently predict the course of our current pandemic, according to Ms. Kolata? What role has what Frank Snowden, a historian of medicine at Yale University, called the “overweening hubris” of experts played in adding to our frustrations in understanding how and when our current pandemic will go away?

6. The article ends:

Jonathan Moreno, a historian of science and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said the end of Covid would be analogous to a cancer that has gone into remission — still there, but not as deadly.

“You are never cured,” he said. “It is always in the background.”

What do you think of Mr. Moreno’s cancer analogy to understand the possible end of Covid? Do you think there will ever be a clear end of the pandemic? Do you see one in sight? How do you think we will know it? Does the article change how you think about and answer these questions?

Using your sketch or outline from the warm up activity as a springboard, create an artwork that tells the story of our present Covid-19 era for future generations — much the way Bruegel did nearly 500 years ago. Your creation can be realistic or abstract, big or small, a painting, a drawing or a multimedia piece. There is no one single way to tell the story of the coronavirus pandemic.

Afterward, share your artwork with your class in a gallery exhibition.

Interested in sharing your creation with other teenagers outside your school? Consider submitting your artwork to our multimedia contest for teenagers, “Coming of Age in 2021.”

Additional Teaching and Learning Opportunities

  • Learn more about the future of the pandemic. In “What the Future May Hold for the Coronavirus and Us,” Emily Anthes describes where scientists think the pandemic could be headed and discusses how viral evolution is a long game, and often very unpredictable. How does reading about the future of the pandemic from a scientific perspective add to or change your understanding of what will happen next? What did you find most surprising or fascinating about the way the virus may evolve? What questions does the article raise for you about the possible end of the pandemic?

  • Analyze and interpret Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death.” Building on your answers from the warm-up activity, develop a critical analysis of the famous work. You might consider these questions: What do you notice about the composition, colors, objects and people in the artwork? How would you describe Bruegel’s style or approach to painting? What do you find interesting, memorable or affecting about it? What are the main themes of the painting? How does the painting reflect the trauma that was felt by generations of Europeans following the bubonic plague? What questions would you ask Bruegel about his painting if you could?

    You can write your analysis and interpretation as an essay, or consider a creative presentation application like Google Slides or Prezi to help you focus your audience on the details of the artwork you find most significant.


Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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