Jane Macnaughton: The past, present and future of COVID-19: the role of medical humanities

Medical humanities has tended first and foremost to be associated with the ways in which the arts and humanities help us to understand health.  However, this is not the only or necessarily the primary aim of our field.  What the COVID pandemic has revealed above all is what the field of critical medical humanities has always insisted upon: the deep entanglement of social, cultural, historical life with the biomedical.  What is fascinating about the current crisis (were it not so devastating) is the fact that historians and cultural commentators are watching these elements of our collective lived experience connect and disconnect in real time.  It is a bit like watching history in fast forward and makes academic researchers wary of commenting too quickly or with authority.  The pandemic has been a time for reinstating the power of expertise, but that expertise has been of a particular kind, focussing on epidemiology, scientific modelling of potential outcomes, and vaccine development.  All of this delivered by science in double quick time.  The pandemic, however, also demonstrates clearly the meaning of culture: that it is not a static entity, but is produced and evolves through interaction and relationship.  It is the role of medical humanities to pay attention to those interactions and to examine how they play out in the human experience and potential impact of the pandemic.  This requires reflection upon the past and present of the pandemic, and on the role of medical humanities in shaping potential futures.

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