Epidemics Shape Us as Much as We Shape Them Andrea Patterson, Ph.D., Professor of Liberal Studies

Andrea Patterson, Ph.D.

Covid-19 has painfully brought into the public awareness how social, economic and political forces can facilitate or curb pathogenic development. Many aspects of this unfolding pandemic reiterate the central message and findings in Andrea Patterson’s new book, The Shapes of Epidemics and Global Disease.

Fear of political repercussions delayed essential communication regarding the initial outbreak between the local and central governments in China; and subsequently between China and the international community. It is eerily similar to the chilling response of the Reagan administration to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, and the deception and inefficiency that characterized the Trump administration’s handling of this pandemic.

COVID-19 revealed how epidemics impact marginalized groups due to culture, race, gender, class, sexuality, and region. Poverty and race play an undeniable role in contracting the disease, in unequal access to healthcare and treatment, and in disparate survival rates. Furthermore, behavior protocols are less successful when patients are subject to poverty, bias, judgment, and discrimination.

Hate is a familiar feature of epidemics. We have seen social repercussions and stigmatization of individuals (regardless of their infection status), with the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and increased antagonism between rural and urban populations.

The world witnessed the rapid global spread of COVID-19 with fear of economic repercussions dictating inadequate policies for its containment. Considerations that place economic profits over community health are often (if not generally) at the core of epidemic diseases. If the coronavirus is a killer, then “Big Food,” and “Big Pharma” that mass-produce and manipulate people into habitually consuming their products are accomplices to the crime.

Finally, what has become abundantly clear is the lack of foresight and preparation. This is rather incomprehensible given our recent experiences with Ebola in Western Africa or pandemic HIV/AIDS. Identifying, surviving, or controlling epidemics requires conceptual connections and integrated knowledge. It certainly commands the broadest of approaches, an openness to ideas, and far-reaching collaboration of experts from across vastly different fields.

Patterson’s book (co-edited with Ian Read) examines how the physical threat of epidemic disease is irrevocably linked to culture, economic resources, social class, and power; and how we need to prepare, prevent, treat, and contain epidemic disease by gaining a better understanding of the biochemical and physical processes, as well as social, economic, and political forces that can both facilitate or curb pathogenic development. In addition, epidemics need to be recognized not only for their devastation but also for their important role in promoting scientific discovery, changing policy, and influencing the arts.

Patterson began this project long before the current pandemic captured everyone’s attention. Scholars in the field have realized and warned us for quite some time that infectious diseases pose a rising global threat due to factors such as antibiotic resistance and vast environmental and demographic changes---all of which contribute to the evolution and spread of new pathogens. Since the 1980s, several new zoonotic diseases have emerged (when diseases spread from animals to humans), such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and ZIKA. This can be blamed on greater and faster movements of people. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where both pathological diseases and health behaviors are infectious. Environmental degradation, poaching, wildlife trades, and hyper-globalization increasingly provide fertile grounds for epidemics which are less likely constrained to nations or regions.

These complex problems require complex solutions. This project brought together scholars from 15 disciplines across the natural sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities in a search for innovative ways to address human suffering in an approach this book calls “radical interdisciplinarity.”

Patterson grew up in Munich, Germany, where she earned a degree in biology. She continued her education at CSUF in biochemistry. “Dr. Jesse Battan (American Studies 201) opened my eyes to the cultural and ideological forces that shape all our experiences. I was intrigued by the idea of seemingly distant phenomena that appear entirely unrelated being actually interrelated. I began to understand that science may not be observed or measured as objectively, and that we cannot easily distinguish between the ideological and natural worlds.” For her graduate degree Patterson stepped out of the laboratory, continued her education in American Studies, and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in History of Science.

Patterson is continuing her work on epidemic disease and racial health disparities in collaboration with SHE (Science Health Education) Center/Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard School of Medicine.

“Use your imagination. Think outside the box. Collaborate with others from outside your field.”