Seeking Ethics Through Narrative During COVID-19

A collection of books on a tableIn her redesigned Literature and Medicine course, Uma Satyavolu challenges students to study both past and current writings to deal ethically with pandemics such as COVID-19.

“The moment I heard of this pandemic, I reached for Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ and Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year,’” said Satyavolu, a lecturer in the University of Pittsburgh Department of English in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “I often teach the latter in my Essay and Memoir class. These books help people understand how people dealt with disruptions and being isolated due to epidemics in previous generations, like we relatively are today,” with stay-at-home orders in place in much of the U.S.

The course has pivoted to having students analyze narratives surrounding COVID-19 to trace how medical knowledge is or is not transmitted during the pandemic, with particular attention to how some narratives gain authority and the status of “truth.” Their analyses will be posted in April on the Center for Bioethics and Health Law’s website, COVID-19 Narratives.

“What I want students to take away from this course is that we’re not just reading a few books. This is a form of important public engagement,” she said. “The course is based upon the idea of literature and the humanities serve as a bridge between ‘expert’ knowledge and the general public.”

Uma SatyavoluIn the Literature and Medicine course, “We examine the idea, starting with the Hippocratic Writings, that every physician or student has a responsibility to engage with the public; they have a function to discover new knowledge and make contributions to society. Publishing their (students’) works on the bioethics page gives them that kind of responsibility and engagement I have always urged for them to have.”

However, she also notes that modern society has so much more information, which can create more confusion and anxiety about keeping track of it.

“We talked about the ‘epistemic crisis,’ the crisis of knowledge and belief, as well as the difficulty of establishing who has knowledge, whether it be expert sources, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, epidemiologists, physicians or nurses on the front line,” she said. “How do we know we can trust it? That is laid bare by the way we are learning of this pandemic. The way the stories of the virus get told, and in what communities, and how, and why and whom have far-reaching life-and-death consequences for individuals, communities, regions, states and nations.”

But Satyavolu isn’t stopping with the course; she also recently led the gathering of medical humanities materials to create COVID-19 Medical Humanities Resources, a webpage that went live in late March. The resource page contains suggested novels, essays, podcasts and films to analyze how stories taking place during epidemics and pandemics are told.

As for the efficacy of social distancing and keeping a community sense of mind, Satyavolu suggests reading Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” or Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.”

For calming anxieties about COVID-19 and seeking solace, she suggests Seneca’s "On Providence" and "On Firmness,” as well as the Chan Buddhist and Taoist poets represented in “Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China,” translated by David Hinton.

People interested in the ethical issues raised by the pandemic can visit the Center’s COVID-19 Ethics Resources webpage.