Science students find perspective by studying COVID-19 through the lens of anthropology, religion

Offered by the departments of anthropology and religion, a "Plagues and Peoples" course has proven popular among U of T undergraduates – including those who are studying sciences (photo by Martin Schutt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Shaili Shukla, a third-year University of Toronto student studying health and disease, and genome biology, never imagined she would land in a class offered jointly by the department for the study of religion and the department of anthropology. 

That is until she spotted “Plagues & Peoples: From Divine Intervention to Public Health” in the calendar.

The course, offered by the Faculty of Arts & Science, has attracted nearly 100 undergraduate students – including many in the sciences who, like Shukla, signed up to learn more about one of the biggest stories of their generation.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Shukla says. “It’s not often that the thing you are studying is actually happening. There are so many different aspects to [the pandemic] – the social and religious is one part and then the medical.

“Together they all give such a rounded holistic view of this topic.” 

Pamela Klassen, a professor in the department for the study of religion, and Janelle Taylor, a professor of anthropology, say the course was very much a reaction to world events.


“We felt like the study of religion and medical anthropology together have a lot to offer people to make sense of this huge, tumultuous thing we are all living through,” Taylor says.

Friends for over two decades, the two professors merged their expertise. They wove together a curriculum that offers a historical, anthropological and religious perspective that compares pandemics from the bubonic plague and cholera to the 1918 flu epidemic, looking at how diseases impact society and how they change culture and politics.

“What does it mean to live through a world historic pandemic?” Klassen asks. “We are thinking about how stories matter for the course of a pandemic. We are asking students to observe what they see around them and consider how religion and culture shape the ways that epidemics reveal inequity as well as bring about solidarity.”

One assignment – a first-hand account of the pandemic – gave Klassen and Taylor a revealing look at their students’ lives. “It was truly humbling to realize the variety of experiences; reading about the front-line workers in hospitals, vet clinics and in retail, and also reading about the students who had lost family members,” Klassen says.  

For Shukla, the chance to reflect on her personal experience was poignant. She is a pandemic support assistant at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital. Working with the hospital’s elder life program, she offers companionship to help prevent delirium in elderly patients.

“I help them cope with the loneliness of being in a hospital with no visitors,” she says, adding that the combination of her real-life experience, her science education and the “Plagues & Peoples” course has given her a multidimensional understanding of the pandemic.

“I think it is amazing to see how humans react no matter which time period we are in. This course is showing me how human behaviour shapes how a pandemic progresses.”

Taylor believes a holistic understanding of the pandemic is essential, particularly for science students. “My hunch and hope is that the pandemic has made it obvious that we have to understand the social side of health,” she says. “Are people and society organized enough to mount a coherent response or not? Will people observe the rules and laws and abide by them or not?

“These are all social decisions that people are making that have huge impacts.”

For Klassen, the pandemic offers an opportunity to examine how religion is fundamental to how societies function.

“Historically we know that plagues or past pandemics have been profoundly shaped by religious practices, including the ways people feel obligated to help one another,” she says. “Even from the earliest days of this pandemic, we’ve seen that questions of ritual have posed real challenges for people and their families: how family and friends gather for a funeral or a wedding; how parents welcome a child into the world. These rites of passage have all been a challenge during this pandemic.”

The chance to learn about pandemics through the lens of religion and anthropology helped Shukla see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s really hopeful,” she says. “There is an end. People did cope with it and they got through it – and we will, too.” 

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