Course Overview

We are living in a world radically reshaped by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This course will investigate the wide range of questions raised by the pandemic, its impact, and its significance. We will also examine how diseases raise fundamental issues for science, policy, and society. In addition to assessing our scientific and medical knowledge about COVID-19, the course will utilize strategies from history, the humanities, and the social sciences to illuminate central policy and political considerations for addressing the epidemic in the U.S. and across the globe. The course will bring experts from a wide array of fields to offer approaches for understanding essential issues raised by the pandemic, including the science of the virus, medical and public health responses, and its impact on economies, society, and culture. We will also broadly consider how epidemics reveal existing social structures such as fundamental health disparities and social inequalities. Among the questions we will explore are: How do we balance basic freedoms and social restrictions as we face critical new threats to human health, and how do we think about risk and vulnerability in the face of uncertainty from both a personal and political viewpoint? As this epidemic unfolds in real time, you will have an opportunity to integrate interdisciplinary perspectives for understanding epidemic disease and how it shapes and reflects powerful social forces and global systems.

Course Objectives 

Pandemics impact virtually every aspect of science, medicine, society, and culture. Certainly, this has been the case as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved across the globe during this last year. As we all know at this time, the pandemic has shattered norms and expectations in every domain of life, culture, and economy. This course will offer you a deeper understanding of the problems of controlling the epidemic, clinical and public health approaches to treating patients and preventing transmission; new medical and scientific strategies for treatment and control; and the vast disparities of its impact on peoples and populations. You will learn how disease reflects ongoing inequalities in health and well-being. 

A principal objective of the course is to explore and understand the deeper contexts of how the “biosocial” characteristics of disease—the interaction of biological and social forces—challenge policy-makers, institutions, and political decision-making. The course also seeks to investigate how COVID-19 will shape fundamental cultural practices and social relations as we look ahead. At the end of the course, you will have developed new skills and insight into understanding the meaning, impact, and approaches to controlling COVID-19, and how the U.S. and global societies are responding to a pandemic crisis in real time. Captioned recordings of each course lecture will be made available below.

Lectures Available Now

COVID-19: Why Here, Why Now?

September 3, 2020
This session will introduce all aspects of the course and focus on the range of questions—scientific, social, and political—that the COVID-19 pandemic has raised across the globe. We will review the rationale for interdisciplinary approaches to observing and understanding the pandemic and its impact.
Faculty: Allan Brandt, Ingrid Katz

Reopening Harvard: How Did We Get Here?

September 8, 2020
Over recent months we have all closely watched for the University and the College’s decisions about how best to respond to COVID-19, and especially to policies for reopening the campus following the March shutdown. This session will look at the complex decision-making process, as well as the intricate trade-offs that led to the decisions regarding the current term and residential de-densification.
Guest Faculty: Alan Garber, Giang Nguyen, Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Christopher Stubbs

What is an Epidemic/Pandemic?

September 10, 2020
We all know we are living in the midst of a pandemic, but pandemics bring together many characteristics, patterns, and impacts. This session will focus on how different disciplines have come to study and understand epidemics and pandemics, from the perspectives of public health, history, and evolutionary biology.
Guest Faculty: Stephen Greenblatt, Charles Rosenberg, Christina Warinner

Outbreak and Narratives of Contagion

September 15, 2020
In recent years, literary critics and humanists have investigated how we “narrate” and convey stories of epidemics, their causes, and effects. This session will explore how these accounts are structured and organized, and how they shape deeper humanistic knowledge about diseases and their spread.
Guest Faculty: Eram Alam, Jill Lepore, Karen Thornber

Epidemiology and Modeling

September 17, 2020
A central element of all epidemics has been strategies to understand their cause and the character of their spread, as well as to assess their impact on patterns of illness and death. This session will explore how experts in the field of epidemiology and disease modeling have addressed COVID-19 and their approaches to understanding its dynamics and trajectory.
Guest Faculty: Caroline Buckee, William Hanage, Maimuna Majumder

Diagnosis and Testing

September 22, 2020
The technical ability to test for and diagnose an epidemic disease has historically been a crucial aspect of both public health and medical approaches. This has clearly been the case with COVID-19. This class will explore the science and technology of testing for COVID-19, as well as the problems and possibilities that testing offers for mitigating the epidemic. We will also learn about the accuracy of alternative tests and difficulties in making tests accessible.
Guest Faculty: Margaret Bourdeaux, Michael Mina, Pardis Sabeti

Stories from the Frontline: Clinical and Hospital Responses

September 24, 2020
Outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S. and around the globe tested the capacities of hospitals and health systems to meet the rising demand for emergency care. Further, the risk of transmission of the virus radically altered the environment for these institutions to deliver ongoing and elective care. This session will bring frontline caregivers and hospital leaders to review and assess their approaches to meeting surge conditions in their institutions, as well as the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on health care delivery.
Guest Faculty: Katrina Armstrong, Paul Biddinger, Mike Klompas, Claire-Cecile Pierre

The Experiences of Patients and Caregivers

September 29, 2020
This session will center attention on the experience of patients and families as they have experienced the medical impact of COVID-19. In addition to medical care and recovery, patients, families, and caregivers will narrate the experiences of suffering, stress, grief, and bereavement in the context of the epidemic.
Guest Faculty: Lawrence Bacow, Daniela Lamas, Sharon Levine

Treating COVID-19

October 1, 2020
In the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much speculation and considerable research into new and repurposed therapies. There is now growing evidence concerning several drugs and a great deal of ongoing research to identify safe and effective treatments for those who have become ill. This class will assess the ongoing research for effective medications as well as the larger context of trials, regulation, and access to drugs. 
Guest Faculty: Jonathan Abraham, Rajesh Gandhi, Rochelle Walensky

Vaccine Hunters

October 6, 2020
Vaccines are seen as the best hope for ending the COVID-19 epidemic, and many candidate vaccines are in development. This session will review current research strategies in vaccine development; it will also evaluate human trials, safety, and efficacy, as well as approaches to assuring mass access to vaccines in the U.S. and other countries.
Guest Faculty: Galit Alter, Lindsey Baden, Bisola Ojikutu, Bruce Walker

Race, Racism, and Disease

October 8, 2020
The COVID-19 epidemic has revealed the significance of racism as a cause of wide disparities in morbidity and mortality in the U.S. This session will investigate the history and epidemiology of racism as an essential indicator of COVID-19 outcomes, as well as approaches for researching race and racism as social determinants of disease.
Guest Faculty: Margarita Alegria, Evelynn Hammonds, Camara Phyllis Jones, Sonya Shin

Prisons and Incarceration

October 13, 2020
Mass incarceration has led to prisons being among the most prevalent institutions for the transmission of COVID-19. This session will center attention on prison populations, risk of transmission, and strategies to protect incarcerated populations from institutional outbreaks. 
Guest Faculty: Eric Reinhart, Kim Sue, Crystal Yang

Masks: Science, Policy, Politics

October 15, 2020
The use of masks is one of the oldest strategies to prevent the transmission of disease, but it has been the source of considerable confusion and debate in the current COVID-19 pandemic. This class will closely examine the mask as a medical technology, as a material object, and as a political symbol in the context of the pandemic.
Guest Faculty: Atul Gawande, Hannah Marcus, Julia Marcus

Contact Tracing and the Problem of Transmission

October 20, 2020
Testing for COVID-19 has led to the utilization of a historical strategy for controlling the epidemic: contact tracing. By identifying individuals who are infected and “tracing” and isolating their “contacts,” epidemics can be slowed, and sometimes ended. This session will examine how this approach has been applied to COVID-19 in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.
Guest Faculty: Danielle Allen, Joia Mukherjee, Jonathan Zittrain

Public Health Infrastructure

October 22, 2020
For the last half-century, observers have described the deterioration of U.S. public health institutions and infrastructure for health promotion and disease prevention. This session will focus on the U.S. public health system and structural obstacles to responding to COVID-19 and other critical health problems.
Guest Faculty: Mary Bassett, Howard Koh, Margaret Kruk, Rajesh Panjabi

Political Impact and the Election

October 27, 2020
This session will address the impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. election. It will assess the complex problems of voting in the context of the epidemic and political debates about voting rights and public health. Additionally, we will address the impact of the federal and state efforts to respond to the epidemic on the presidential election and other races.
Guest Faculty: Jennifer Hochschild, Nicholas Stephanopoulos, Brandon Terry

Global Governance and the WHO

October 29, 2020
It is often suggested that infectious epidemics do not respect national boundaries. Therefore, epidemics require the collective action of nation-states. This session will focus on the role of the World Health Organization and multilateral agencies to examine questions of global governance. What are the current strengths and weaknesses of these organizations? How have they acted to address the pandemic? What is the basis of their authority and legitimacy?
Guest Faculty: Juliette Kayyem, Jim Kim, Suerie Moon

Global Health, Global South

November 3, 2020
The emergence of “global health” as a field of research, care delivery, and health infrastructure is a relatively recent development. This class will explore the pandemic from the perspectives of contemporary global health which has centered attention on issues of resources, preparedness, prevention, and delivery of essential medicines and treatments. It will explore ideas and policies from low- and middle-income countries and their relevance to Western nations. 
Guest Faculty: Jessica Cohen, Paul Farmer, Dave Walton

Mental Health

November 5, 2020
The COVID-19 epidemic has exacerbated already evident mental health disorders, which often go largely undiagnosed and untreated and are vastly under resourced. These include issues of major mental illness like schizophrenia, but also include serious problems like anxiety and depression. This class will investigate the impact of COVID-19 on existing mental disorders and their treatment, as well as the significant psychosocial effects that the epidemic is having on families and individuals.
Guest Faculty: Shelly Greenfield, Kimberlyn Leary, Vikram Patel

Gender, Family, Home, and Work

November 10, 2020
It has been widely observed that the epidemic and the consequent lockdowns and social-distancing has generated significant shifts in relationships, gender roles, and parenting. This session will examine important questions of gender, work, and home-life in the new ecology of COVID-19. What changes are transitory? What are the longer-term shifts that the epidemic has wrought?
Guest Faculty: Julie Battilana, Hannah Bowles, Claudia Goldin, Sarah Richardson

Economic Impact/Economic Policy

November 12, 2020
Pandemics always affect economic life. COVID-19 has had a powerful impact on national and global economies, generating recession and possible depression. This session will assess the tensions that have arisen between reestablishing economies and mitigating the epidemic. It will also assess economic policies for sustaining and rebuilding essential economic stability and growth.
Guest Faculty: Karen Dynan, Gita Gopinath, Eric Maskin

The Future of Healthcare Policy and Healthcare Delivery

November 17, 2020
COVID-19 has accelerated important changes in U.S. health policy and practice. This session will explore both the immediate and intermediate effects of the epidemic on access to care, health insurance and health systems, hospitals, and shifts in health delivery and practice. What have been the implications of shifts to telemedicine, delayed care, de-densification, and other changes for policy and for health outcomes?
Guest Faculty: Sara Bleich, Haiden Huskamp, Benjamin Sommers, Zirui Song

Culture and COVID-19: Art, Photography, and Performance

November 19, 2020
Epidemics shape the arts and art-making. Witness AIDS. Even in this early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing the effect of the epidemic on art, music, and film. Additionally, the epidemic is reshaping major art institutions, from the film industry, live performances, and museums. This session will focus on these important impacts as well as the longer-term effects of the epidemic on cultural expression and life.
Guest Faculty: Sarah Lewis, Karthik Pandian, Diane Paulus, Martha Tedeschi

Reconsidering Cities: Urban Design in the Wake of COVID-19

November 24, 2020
Epidemics are often strongly associated with the density of urban centers. In this sense, cities have been the focus of the epidemic, its impact, and approaches to its control, despite its impact in rural areas. As a result, urban planners, architects, and engineers are already in the process of important reconsiderations of the nature and character of urban life, here in the U.S., and around the world. This session will focus on the impact and implications of COVID-19 for urban planning and design, architecture, and the future of cities.
Guest Faculty: Ann Forsyth, Edward Glaeser, Stephen Gray, Sameh Wahba


December 1, 2020
Unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent that some commentators have referred to the avalanche of misinformation during COVID-19 as corresponding ‘dis-infodemic.’ The phenomenon is not new, but appears to have intensified with COVID-19 complicating, and at times, causing active harm as it relates to public health messaging and the delivery of key services. However; not everyone spreading untruths is doing so maliciously. This distinction underlies the difference between the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” the second of which implies intent. In this session, we explore the complex interplay of mis and dis-information, issues of truth, who arbitrates it, and the ecosystems in which these phenomena exist and spread.
Faculty: Joan Donovan, Yochai Benkler, Vish Viswanath

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

December 3, 2020
By the time we get to this final class, the COVID-19 epidemic will be quite different from where it was in early September. In this session we reflect on the early history of the pandemic and its impact; we also identify critical areas and strategies for monitoring its intermediate and long-term effects on science and society, medicine and public health, institutions, and culture.
Faculty: Allan Brandt, Ingrid Katz