Fear and cooperation: during the dawn of globalization, and today

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought changes to people’s lives in an unprecedented way, all over the world. Travel restrictions, stagnant commerce and overloaded hospitals have not been the world norm for generations.

One of the first measures adopted by governments worldwide to fight the spread of the virus was the reduction in international air travel. Although many of us have never experienced anything like this, the move is not unprecedented. Similar experiences are described in the upcoming book Romantic Transport, by Miranda Burgess, PhD, associate professor of English at The University of British Columbia (UBC).

Consequences of ignorance about disease

According to her profile page on the UBC website, Burgess is a specialist in British and Irish Romantic poetry and prose (i.e. writing from the period 1780–1830), and in the history and theory of feeling, mobility, media/mediation, and literary form, and has PhD from Boston University. She has published numerous articles and, in 2000, a book entitled British Fiction and the Production of Social Order, 1740–1830. Her upcoming book, Romantic Transport, discusses the fear of the common people of the spread of disease due to ship travel in the early days of globalization (the late 18th and early 19th centuries), and how this fear permeated the work of poets and novelists.

Miranda Burgess, associate professor of English at The University of British Columbia.|Photo courtesy of the University of British Columbia

In that time, the fear was that effluvia (a noxious odour or exhaled substance) and miasmata (a noxious vapour, especially from putrescent organic matter) could spread disease to people gathered in a crowded space, similar to how COVID-19 spreads now. The concept of a virus was unknown back then.

Entire races and countries were held to blame; Burgess states that some English writers attributed the spread of disease to “Irish dirtiness,” or even the warm climates of some countries, India in particular. People also believed that cloth and paper could conduct the agents responsible for causing diseases, Burgess writes, and as a result, many books carrying “germs” and dangerous ideas were conveniently destroyed.

Although there was blame placed on some races, it was more common to consider poor people responsible for spreading disease. “Writers on medical hygiene argued that cities were dangerous because it was difficult to breathe air that had not been in someone else’s lungs a moment before. So it was class more than race that tended to become the object of fear about contagion: a fear of poor people because of the crowding in poor districts in cities,” says Burgess.

Global responsibilities in a connected world

The author has made some predictions about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect contemporary literature. According to Burgess, the first change will be the emergence of new techniques and forms of writing. Some innovations will arise, but not all of them will become popular or lasting. “Works from time of crisis respond to crisis with an increase in metaphors, similes, comparisons – a kind of rhetorical speed and plenitude some literary scholars call ‘hyperfigurality.’ There’s a noisiness about the works of crisis,” says Burgess.

The dawn of globalization in the late 18th century made it easier for people to travel to places that were once quite difficult to reach. As a result, people realized that despite the distance – ideas, behaviours and diseases could be taken from one place to another in a brief period of time. Thus, every citizen was responsible for their contribution to global health and security.

Burgess is still completing Romantic Transport. She anticipated the book would be finished by September, but due to outbreak-related challenges, it is taking a little more time. In the words of Dr. Burgess, this is the most important thing to know about her project:

“The COVID-19 is forcing us, like people from that time, to balance fear with cooperation and obligation and learn how to live safely and ethically together.”

For more information, please visit: https://english.ubc.ca/person/miranda-burgess/