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Humanities as Essential Services

They can be a vital part of the pandemic response through immediate, translational, front-line work, argues Kirsten Ostherr.

One of the ways that humanities scholars can contribute to the current pandemic: by engaging in long-term, big-picture research that brings humanities questions to bear on public health. This kind of work provides critical historical and cultural context and can broaden the perspectives of public health and medical trainees.

A second way that the humanities can be part of a pandemic response: through front-line, immediate translational work. The current outbreak has revealed some alarming weaknesses in our public health infrastructure, and we desperately need research to develop fast, cheap field test kits, ventilators and vaccines. But research in the medical humanities has long shown that health cannot be attained and illness cannot be vanquished through biomedical or technical interventions alone. This pandemic has made the human fragility of our response infrastructure abundantly clear, and we need to understand how our decisions about whose life matters will shape the future to come. Vaccines won’t help if huge sections of the population believe they are part of a government or corporate conspiracy. Ventilators won’t save the lives of patients who are unable to access health care due to systemic racism. We need translational humanities now to complete our technological and biomedical response.

Becoming part of the front-line response may also require expanding the scope of our research projects, as we reimagine the audience for the work. We should be training our students to do the same. Participating in the pandemic response requires robust, sustained, long-term dialogue with intended publics beyond the academy, and most critically, it demands that we incorporate their needs into the formulation of research topics. Humanities-trained scholars have shown the value of clinical engagement with visual art and literature for fostering empathy and tolerance for ambiguity in medical students. But many physicians working on COVID-19 wards feel unprepared for the human toll of so much suffering and uncertainty. Humanities researchers should reframe their interventions based on the accounts of health-care workers during this pandemic. Moreover, this effort should be extended to address other hard-hit workplaces, such as nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons. This shift in orientation may be the hardest but also the most impactful one we can make. Being of service does not require being subservient, but it does demand a realignment of priorities.