The Great Pause

By Jennifer Sicking

We’re in the waiting now as I write this. This pause in our lives since COVID-19 arrived in the United States and the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. By the time you hold this magazine in your hands, hopefully, our lives will have begun playing anew.

In mid-March, the University of Tennessee moved classes online for the final six weeks of the spring semester and postponed graduations. The last time university life came to such a halt was when classes were suspended from spring 1862 to fall 1865 due to the Civil War, according to Alesha Shumar, UT Knoxville archivist and associate professor.

Time will tell what the COVID-19 outcome will be. The last major pandemic was the 1918-1919 influenza when one-third of the entire global population became infected over 18 months. An estimated 50 million people died, giving it a mortality rate of almost 10 percent.

“Pandemics are devastating,” says Susan Lawrence, a UT Knoxville professor who is an expert in medical history. “Lots of people die, economies are disrupted, lives upended. In the developed world, we are not used to suffering from any infectious diseases, other than colds and seasonal flus or slow-moving ones, like HIV/AIDS.”

While society has changed greatly from 100 years ago, epidemiologists and public health officials learn from every epidemic and use that cumulative knowledge in the next epidemic.

“What we see the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization doing now is the cumulative effect of the historical past,” Lawrence says.

We must learn to trust the experts, she says. UT also responded to the crisis by searching for cures, 3-D printing masks for health-care workers and making hand sanitizer.

“This adversity has brought out the best in us. Resolve. Determination. Passion. Caring for one another. I have never been more proud of our students, our faculty, our staff, our campus leaders and our alumni than I am right now,” UT President Randy Boyd wrote in an email. “These are the days that will define us, that will define greatness.”