UA professors to historicize pandemic in “A Deeper Sickness”

Tristan Waldrop, Contributing Writer

Two University of Alabama history professors, Margaret Peacock and Erik Peterson, released their book “A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year,” an exposition into the underlying crises that came to define the pandemic. 

The book was published on March 8 in collaboration with nonprofit book publisher the Beacon Press. 

From the protests of summer 2020 to structural inadequacies in the American health care system, Peacock and Peterson dive deeper than the surface of COVID-19 to reveal the social maladies afflicting American society. 

Peterson, an associate professor of the history of science, initially saw the pandemic in its infancy as an opportunity to collect material for a course he teaches on the history of epidemics, paying close attention to the respective trends and media reports emerging from Wuhan, China. 

Around the same time, Peacock, the history department’s director of undergraduate studies and a Russian historian with an interest in the history of propaganda and media, was doing similar work concerning how coverage of COVID-19 in its early stages was disseminated and served broader narratives around Western perceptions of China. 

The two professors went on to discover the similarities between their personal projects at a social event, prompting them to merge their projects into a comprehensive analysis of the pandemic. 

With COVID-19 becoming a larger crisis than they had previously imagined, Peacock and Peterson decided to bring their historical knowledge to see the pandemic as the object of intersecting crises, drawing upon historical inflection points to formulate a comprehensive understanding of the last two years. 

To Peacock and Peterson, the explosion of social unrest within the last two years and the widespread sense of systemic failure have roots in a long tradition of social dysfunction in America. 

“There are these profound structural faults, these fault lines that continue to flare up,” Peacock said. 

However, the book remains just the tip of the iceberg for their wider project, which includes an archive of anecdotes from people of all walks of life on the pandemic’s trail. 

The archive encompasses a series of interviews, daily entries written by the coauthors, tweets and even a collection of memes popularized in 2020. 

“By the end of it, the project that had started just as a primary source reader became this massive thing,” Peacock said. “We sat down to start writing hundreds of interviews, trying really hard to capture first, what is the sort of subjective experience people are going through, and second, what is the experience of the pandemic.” 

Yet “A Deeper Sickness” looks to distinguish itself from other attempts to historicize the last two years. Both Peterson and Peacock emphasized the subjectivity of living through the pandemic. 

“The other big difference, I think, between this book and the other stuff that’s going to come out is that we actually wrote it in real-time,” Peacock said. “Sometimes we were mistaken by factual stuff because all sorts of wild things were happening, and people did not know what was going on. We were all confused.” 

Ultimately, the duo hope to use their project as a tool for remembering, fearing that the lessons contained within the pandemic, like so many other events in American history, will soon fade from public consciousness. 

“It’s really important to keep in mind that this forgetting is not just some spot of an unnatural sociological phenomenon that we’re experiencing,” Peacock said. “Across the country right now, in many states, we see actual legal efforts, governmental efforts being made to legislate forgetting.” 

The book is now available for order through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and an array of other digital vendors.

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