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The Four Horseman of the Pandemic Year: Looking Back at 2020 — Part 1

A Q&A with Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson

Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson
Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson

When we look back at the year 2020, how can we describe what really happened? In A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year, award-winning historians Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson set out to preserve what they call the “focused confusion,” and to probe deeper into what they consider the Four Pandemics that converged around the 12 astonishing months of 2020: disease, disinformation, poverty, and violence.

Organized into the journal-entries along with dozens of archival images, A Deeper Sickness will help readers sift through the chaos and misinformation that characterized those frantic days. It is both an unflinching indictment of a nation that is still reeling and a testament to the power of human resilience and collective memory. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Drs. Peacock and Peterson to chat about it. This is part one of their two-part Q&A.

Christian Coleman: What inspired you to collaborate on the book?

Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson: Early in 2020, we realized we were each in the process of collecting sources from the unfolding pandemic. Erik began focusing on the unfolding epidemiology of the pandemic when it was still limited to East Asia, while Margaret was paying close attention to the ways the pandemic was playing out in global media. We realized that we could produce something exceptional if we each brought our areas of expertise to the table to write a book that attempted to cross many facets of the pandemic experience. Plus, given the mammoth job we suspected was ahead of us by the spring of 2020, we figured having someone else there would spur us on to keep working when we were tired or emotionally drained.

CC: You write that four pandemics converged in 2020: disease, disinformation, poverty, and violence. How did you narrow it down to these four?

MP and ELP: This number came out of one year of mucking through thousands of primary and secondary sources along with countless hours of writing and analysis. Certainly, one could argue for a different interpretation—and we are open to having that conversation—but these four long-standing crises helped us to create a conceptual framework for thinking about the 2020 experience.

‘Disease’ encapsulates America’s chronically broken healthcare system that has made access to reasonable care in the United States so difficult. ‘Disinformation’ describes the worrisome tendency in the United States that goes back centuries to prioritize comfortable myths over evidence-based knowledge about the past and the present. It also includes the dangerous power that this disinformation can wield. ‘Poverty’ is, well, poverty, which relegates millions of Americans to the chronic cycles of suffering, unemployment, limited access to education and healthcare, higher mortality rates, and less opportunity for advancement. ‘Violence’ speaks to the recurring phenomenon of vigilantism in the United States, which is marshaled throughout our history to maintain the status quo.

Critically, these four pandemics shaped each other in fundamental ways in 2020. Disinformation, poverty, and violence had a huge impact on how we experienced the COVID-19 virus. Similarly, disease, disinformation, and violence shaped the experiences of America’s poor in 2020. These elements arguably amplified the negative experiences of the others. Plus, that whole “four horsemen of the apocalypse” thing—2020 so often felt like an apocalypse.

CC: A Deeper Sickness is written as a journal in real time, with entries that not only comment on headlines and news but also reflect on personal experiences. Why did you decide on this approach?

MP and ELP: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year has been a model for how to chronicle an epidemic for 300 years. Early on, it felt like we were witnessing another version of that very old story. It seemed a natural fit. But more than that, we recognized that journalists, then historians, would write many books reflecting on what happened and what we learned from the perspective of public health or epidemiology, etc. But those later books would write the account dispassionately, attempting to get at what was happening out of public view. And they should. That kind of writing is great. It’s what we do most of the time. What gets lost in these accounts, however (which we know from writing academic history books ourselves), is the subjective and the emotional. That cannot be grasped from a later historian’s eye view. We wanted to freeze in time the day-to-day experience of living through a pandemic where we didn’t know the outcome, didn’t know how it would turn out.

When the stories of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd emerged  in May 2020, we felt the deep familiar tragedy braided into the fabric of this country peaking through. Again, others will give objective accounts later. We did everything we could to capture the initial raw pain of those early weeks. By Juneteenth, so much of the corporate world and the media that tracks with that world had moved on. That news cycle completed itself. The attention stream of the country began to shift. It was as if the scrim that always mutes painful episodes in American life was descending again to keep our society from having to do any more work, to clean out the wounds.

But as we documented all that tragedy, it seemed to us like there was much more continuity than difference between the COVID-dominated portion of spring 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests. We wanted to stay with it longer, to keep coming back to the ways in which the first part of the year and the second and following parts shared so many features with each other. Though it sounds funny to say it now, the journal kept the rawness when the media, the government, and regular American culture wanted to cover it back up.


Read part 2.


About Drs. Peacock and Peterson

Dr. Margaret Peacock is a historian of media and propaganda in Russia, the United States, and the Middle East, with graduate degrees in history and information science. She currently teaches at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Erik L. Peterson is a historian of science and medicine, with graduate degrees in history, philosophy, and anthropology. He currently teaches at the University of Alabama.