Hobart and William Smith Colleges - The Politics of Epidemics
The HWS Update
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The Politics of Epidemics

During Maymester 2020, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science J. Ricky Price will guide students through the political effects of epidemics like COVID-19 — and challenge the class to develop policy solutions to help people and communities affected by the disease.

Price’s 200-level political science course, “The Politics of Epidemics,” will focus on the political history of epidemics and pandemics through the lens of institutional and community responses to threats like the Flu of 1918, Polio, Malaria, Measles, Toxic Shock, Legionnaires Disease, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola and Zika.

“Ideally, this course will help students grapple with the profound changes we’re facing right now on individual and global levels,” says Price.

While his doctoral research and dissertation on the history of HIV/AIDS policy informs the Maymester course, Price notes that “it can be tricky to compare epidemics outside of the historical and social contexts within which they emerge.”

He says that many of the recent think pieces comparing HIV to COVID-19 are often “fraught and too simple. They are biologically very different, transmitted very differently, and require very different medical interventions. Comparisons with the Flu Pandemic of 1918 are stronger on a biological level, but we live in a completely different world than folks did 100 years ago — so again the comparison of the viruses themselves seems limiting.”

Rather, it is the “institutional policies that are produced by new epidemic threats, and charting the many different ways communities have responded to these threats,” that can perhaps offer the best predictors of COVID-19’s impact. “When we use that as the vector of comparison I think we can develop strategies that may come from a different historical or social context, but can be ‘remixed’ within our current environment and politics,” Price explains.

Considering engrained social structures, the relationship between identity and health, and unintended consequences of responses like the “criminalization of sickness to control disease,” students will use the lessons of the course “to examine and craft a policy solution” at the local, state, federal or international level “to a specific problem they care about that stems from this pandemic,” Price explains.

“I’m asking them to think about how the local is connected to the global biologically and politically, how the current pandemic makes those connections explicit, and how COVID-19 is laying bare the numerous inequalities in our health care system,” he says. “How we address those inequalities is central to creating a more just world, and I know that is something so many of our students are dedicating their studies and their lives to. My hope is this class will give them tools to go about making those changes.”

Price holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from New School for Social Research, and a B.A. from Whitman College. He joined HWS in 2018.

Maymester runs from May 20 to June 9, 2020. Learn more about course offerings and enrollment.