Pandemics are a hot topic and biomedical anthropologist Lianne Tripp is about to share her knowledge of the history of large-scale outbreaks of infectious disease with her students at UNBC.
Starting May 1st and continuing through June 11, Tripp’s online course will provide a historical perspective of pandemics and their consequences, touching on the economic devastation and life-changing social and health impacts of COVID-19, what we can learn from it, on how we will recover from it.
“The objective is to get an appreciation of what the epidemic or pandemic experience is in a population in a historical context but also to understand what we are going through today,” said Tripp.
“These are historic times. Fifty to 100 years from now, researchers like myself will be studying this pandemic and I think it’s important for students to understand they’re going through this momentous time. Even though we’re in the midst of it we don’t know how it’s going to play out and we can still study it and take the information that’s available and have an understanding of our history as it’s unfolding.”
Tripp, an assistant professor at UNBC, earned her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Toronto, gearing her research to the demography and health of small-scale communities. Her studies of marginalized populations in colonial settings in the 19th and 20th centuries focused on the relative isolation of Maltese islands and Gibraltar.
“The reason I like to focus on smaller populations in Gibraltar and Malta is they’re quite contained and it’s easy to track cases,” Tripp said. “You have an island or a peninsula that has strict border measures and this is experience we’re in now is going to be very similar to that.
“People are somewhat contained, we do have border closures, so we can in some cases effectively track the disease. We have these numbers and daily reports and that’s unprecedented. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that again. It’s a great learning opportunity for students.”
Tripp has ttracked the effects of infectious diseases such as the Spanish flu, cholera, influenza, tuberculosis and undulant fever on localized populations to determine the social and biological factors that either contributed to or limited the spread of disease.
“The Spanish flu in 1918 was the considered the last great pandemic and through my research I see quite a few parallels that are somewhat remarkable, that the experiences populations went through almost 100 years ago we’re now experiencing and asking questions that were being asked back then,” said Tripp.
“It affected various sub-populations differently and we can draw some comparisons today. Who were the vulnerable populations and why were they vulnerable? Are there cultural factors? Are there biological factors? And what are socioeconomic factors and consequences? Economics can play a huge role in the spread of disease.”
After delving into the history of pandemics and their effects, the second half of the course examines the COVID-19 virus and the ongoing fight to bring it under control. What’s there to be learned from tracking trends in the number of cases and number of deaths? What populations are more at risk and why? And what’s being reported in the media compared to what’s being written by experts in scientific journals?
Tripp will also touch on outbreak science and the use of artificial intelligence and cell phone usage to track the chain of infection and how effective these methods have been in minimizing the spread of the coronavirus.
“Everything that’s being published on COVID is accessible for free so we’re going to be taking advantage of that and looking at the Canadian context,” said Tripp. “I think Canada is a great place to examine what’s going on because we have variation in provincial mandates as to how to try to minimize the spread of the disease. So we can look at case studies and that’s another aspect I hope students will find interesting.
“Sometimes we’re taking info on cases and deaths and reporting them as being as accurate (but) they are estimates at best. We’re never going to have really true numbers. Even from province to province the way it’s being reported is different, and that’s problematic.
“We see these graphs comparing province to province or doing it globally as Canada, as a total, versus other countries. We have to bear in mind they may be including probable cases in their estimates or may be estimating infection just based on models. There’s a huge discrepancy in how these numbers are being collected and we do have to keep that in mind when we’re looking at comparisons across the world.”
The differences between lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation and the role each of those precautions will play in delaying the onset and minimizing the severity of the anticipated second wave of infections will be covered in the course.
Tripp will also get into discussions about kids and how they are affected by COVID-19 and will examine whether residents of high-density neighborhoods in Canadian cities are skewing totals upwards.
“There’s a debate I’m seeing whether it’s even worth closing schools because children are not getting infected, but it’s too early to tell a lot of these things,” Tripp said. “It’s very likely children still get it and we hear the odd case where a child has died, they just might have mild symptoms.
“People who are impoverished who are living in crowded spaces, regardless of your ethnicity, your background, you’re probably going to be more at risk, just because of where you live, and we’ve seen this time and time again throughout history with pandemics.”
In her three years at UNBC, Tripp has localized her studies on health topics and is just beginning a new project which delves into how the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak affected small-scale populations in northern B.C. The Spanish flu affected nearly 500 million people, one-third of the world population, and caused between 10 and 50 million deaths. Most historians consider it was more deadly than the First World War, which caused 15-19 million deaths.
The online pandemic course has been adopted by UNBC’s school of nursing as one of the required anthropology courses and several nursing students are among the 17 students registered as of Monday.