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What Can We Learn From Pandemics Of The Past: A Sociologist's Perspective

Illustration of diverse crowd of people wearing medical masks for prevention of virus transmission. New corona virus COVID-19 concept. Vector seamless pattern.
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Harry Perlstadt says while both the pandemic and the Great Depression had widespread job loss and economic insecurity, the government did a better job at helping people through the pandemic.

Sociology is the study of human society. How it developed, how it’s structured and how it functions. We’ve all been going through a huge disruption to human society — the COVID-19 pandemic. How are sociologists processing the changes?

Harry Perlstadt is a sociology professor emeritus at Michigan State University who has completed research on health care and health care programs. He says the job of a sociologist is to draw comparisons between events and ideas to learn more about the present day.

“The essence of sociology is to compare things, we like to compare individuals, opinions on the environment, on their families, on politics, on religion and things like that. On one level, we do a lot of surveys comparing people’s values, views on these various topics. We also look at the way organizations and groups interact with each other, which groups are trying to push for social change, which groups are trying maintain the status quo,” he says.

One event, Perlstadt says, he has compared the pandemic to is the Great Depression. While both had widespread job loss and economic insecurity, he says the government did a better job at helping people through the pandemic.

“We’ve had a better handle on trying to get people rent, you know not being evicted from their houses when they’re not able to pay this, encouraging landlords and tenants to work out agreements,” he explains. “So I think we’ve improved since, say, the 1930s on how to handle the economic crisis when people lose their jobs.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Perlstadt says he is interested looking at how health officials communicated about health care effectively or handled misinformation. He says engaging with people who are advocating against science is not always productive.

Perlstadt points to studies conducted in the mid-20th century about municipalities discussing whether to add fluoride to drinking water for dental health benefits. He says the sociological study found that communities which gave anti-fluoride advocates spaces to speak were less likely to pass measures to add fluoride into drinking water supplies.

“One of the things I am recommending is that public health workers and educators and so on basically acknowledge people’s belief and comments that they’re very uncomfortable with the masks or the vaccinations and just acknowledge it and move on,” he says.

But where there is room for discussion is on education, like community campaigns to debunk misinformation.

Perlstadt says when it comes to educating people about health care like masks or vaccines, it’s important to remember that people learn in different ways. “You have to talk to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways and that makes spreading — or being an effective health educator very difficult,” he says.

He says there's not one way of teaching people that fits all.

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