Epidemiologist’s book on pandemics takes an interdisciplinary look at the spread of diseases

David Waltner-Toews speaks about his updated book On Pandemics: Deadly Diseases from Bubonic Plague to Coronavirus

  • Jun 01, 2020
  • 1,265 words
  • 6 minutes
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In 2007, University of Guelph professor emeritus and epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews wrote The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases That Jump from Animals to Humans. With its increasing relevance today, an updated and renamed version of the book has just been released.

Originally, The Chickens Fight Back focused on the epidemiological story of the spread of diseases from animals to humans. The new book expands this perspective to take an interdisciplinary look at the transmission of diseases.

On moving toward interdisciplinary approaches to understanding diseases

I think it’s already happening. There were tendencies in that direction before this happened that are now being more accentuated. They’re being pushed into the foreground. There were enough diseases seeming to come out of nowhere — influenza, swine flu, SARS — that people on the human medical side, who have tended in the past to pay attention when somebody comes through the hospital door sick, [are] starting to go back out and look at landscapes and farms and other factors. I think there’s more interaction there, but I don’t think it’s a done deal. 

The good thing about [scientific and academic] institutions is that they give us a kind of collective memory. There’s a kind of collective self-correction there. The challenge with [these] institutions is that they also tend to not change very quickly. They don’t respond to situations quickly unless there’s a massive crisis. The question is, is this a big enough crisis to push people in that direction?

On writing a book during a global pandemic

In mid-March, the publisher of the first edition called me and said, “Could you do an update?” And at first, I thought, “I probably could do an update.” Then when I got into it, I realized it was going to take more than simply writing a new introduction and tweaking a few things.

[Writing the book during the pandemic] was crazy, but it was actually good because it allowed me to focus. We’re inundated with bits of news, and the information is happening so fast. This was a way of digging down, taking a deep breath and saying, “okay, are there some things we can learn from this?” Not on a day to day basis, in terms of quarantine and wearing masks and how it’s transmitted, but in the longer term. What does this mean in terms of planning? And so it allowed me to look at the information differently and to focus on asking different kinds of questions. It was a way to begin to grapple with some of the dizziness of the information that I saw flooding in every morning.

On rethinking the first edition

I was rethinking the book from just the diseases that animals carry and how they transmit to people, to looking at broader system issues—the changes in landscape, and global populations, and trading patterns, and how they interact.

I had been thinking that way, but it allowed me to explicitly focus on making that shift. What does the world look like? And what kinds of narrative stories can we tell? How does it change the way we think about science, the way we do science? How does it change the way we interact, the way different people in society interact—everything from lab scientists to farmers to dog and cat owners to urban designers, how do we begin to bring some of these things together and learn from each other?
That was a shift for me, and a good one. It allowed me to look at a very complex set of issues in a different way.

Most of these complex issues, there are lots of different ways to look at them. And we learn different things by looking at them in different ways. It was this shift to being able to do that more freely, because I was not bound by saying “is this an epidemiology book?” I could say, “well, it’s not.” The question is, are we addressing the kinds of issues that need to be addressed and what kinds of insights and skills do we need to do that.

From On Pandemics: Deadly Diseases from Bubonic Plague to Coronavirus

After decades of studying zoonoses, epidemics, and pandemics, and working with communities in all parts of the world to help them put that scientific knowledge to use in ways that might improve their daily lives, let me offer the following story. 

In the seventeenth century, during a rare inter-pandemic phase of the bubonic plague, and in the midst of multiple wars, René Descartes argued that, by dividing the world into smaller and smaller pieces for observation, we could “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature,” and, in so doing, improve our health. Descartes argued that people should step away from the books of the old masters, and go out to observe the world in real time. Fair enough, although most students since then have learned their science from books. Still, since the seventeenth century, Cartesian science at its best has enabled us to learn a great deal about the things of which the universe is made. In terms of COVID-19 and other pandemics, for instance, Cartesian science has enabled us to identify bacterial and viral structures, develop vaccines, and put into place protocols to reduce the spread of disease. And yet, the notion of becoming the “lords and possessors of nature” eludes us. Why might this be? Zoonoses and pandemics, and, in particular COVID-19, have brought with them questions of how we understand, and respond to, the forces of nature. 

The world is not just the stuff around us. In a pandemic, it’s not just the viruses, other animals, and people that matter. What holds our world together are the relationships among them. These relationships are expressed—for lack of a better word—through conversations. We know about a few of these conversations, those expressed in the sounds animals make and biochemical transmissions among insects and between insects and plants. Others, like gravity and atomic forces, we know, not because we see or hear them, but only by their effects. Since many of these tangled and shifting conversations around us cannot be brought into a controlled laboratory, our understanding of them is at a very rudimentary stage.

What we struggle with, as people, and, more specifically, as scientifically trained scholars, is finding a language that can not only encompass complex uncertainty but enable us to engage in it more fully. Until now, we have learned to lecture the living things with which we share the planet using the very blunt language of bulldozers and pesticides. Pandemics, embedded as they are in globe-spanning social-ecological webs, are the world’s response to our shouted lectures. Do we know how to listen, to respond in creative ways, to respond again to the responses, to understand how we are changed even as we change that which is around us and defines us? What is the language that will enable us to converse in other than the most instinctual, trivial, brutal, bullying, and dysfunctional manner? What is the as-yet-unknown language with which we can tell our collective story? If this seems far-fetched as a way to think about pandemics and zoonoses, it is perhaps because we are still, as a species, so young. 

One of the lessons from the 2020 COVID pandemic is that, rather than aspiring to be “lords and possessors” of nature, perhaps we should strive to be surfers, riding and adapting to the movement of forces we cannot control.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher. 


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