Q&A: #COVIDCalls with Disaster Historian Scott Knowles


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When Scott Knowles, PhD, began hearing more and more about COVID-19, his first thought was to do what he always does as a historian who writes about contemporary disasters: call up experts to find out more. After all, it’s what the professor and head of the Department of History in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences did after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima nuclear accident. 

His second thought, though, was to do something new and completely different.

“I said, ‘Well, why don’t I just invite anyone who wants to learn from the experts to join me on these calls, and archive them?’” said Knowles.

That’s why, every weekday at 5 p.m. since March 16, he has promoted these daily calls (known as #COVIDCalls) through his Twitter account  the interviews are later archived on Soundcloud — with people who use their expertise to answer questions related to COVID-19. So far, he’s talked to public health experts, journalists, historians and many other researchers and professionals from across the country and around the world.

And with dozens of experts on deck and a global pandemic that has disrupted and will continue to disrupt daily life, he has no plans to stop asking questions for the foreseeable future.

In this Q&A with DrexelNow, the #COVIDCalls interviewer became the interviewee to talk about how he picks topics and experts, what he hopes to accomplish and how this novel coronavirus will impact his teaching and research.

Q: What made you want to start the #COVIDCalls?

A: I’m a historian who studies disasters, but I have close working relationships with sociologists, anthropologists, architects, planners, emergency management officials, political scientists and people in the health community. And because disaster research is a very broadly defined area, it affects every strata of society, including everyone and every system that we have.

When I do my own research, I write about contemporary disasters and put them in historical context: how do we get to the kind of situation that allows for a Hurricane Maria or a COVID-19 pandemic? When I do that work, I look at archives and historical resources, but I also talk to a very wide range of experts who are generous with their time. You’d be amazed at how many people will take your call. 

Lastly, I am impressed and will continue to be impressed with the way that the media — certainly the big ones like The New York Times and The Washington Post and The L.A. Times and The Houston Chronicle, and also smaller intrepid venues like Vox — has covered COVID-19. But they’re limited in a lot of ways. And what gets lost in that is really vital information coming from experts that can tell us what’s happening, interpret it for us and point to things that we need to be worried about. My fear was that those voices were not going to be heard.

Q: When did you decide to start doing #COVIDCalls?

A: I don’t know if it started around the 10th or 11th of March. I’d actually have to go back now and see if that connects to any particular event in the news. Things were just accelerating at that point and there seemed to be a national shift in consciousness at that time around the seriousness of this. And even with those of us who were watching what was happening in China and then Italy and South Korea, I still think, in part because of the slowness of our federal response, that we maybe didn’t have a handle on how big COVID-19 was going to get.

Q: Who can listen to #COVIDCalls?

A: Anyone. It’s pitched to people who don’t really think about this in a disciplinary way or a research way, because the conversations are meant to be pretty accessible. And then there are those who are involved in this research one way or the other, either as officials or researchers themselves or media folks, who listen.

I’m less concerned with reaching a large number of people and more concerned that the researchers’ voices are being heard by others. I’ve been letting journalists know that these calls are happening, and I’ve heard from a couple of them that it’s really useful because they don’t have time to do all this background research right now. If I can serve as a sort of middleman between the research community and the media, that’s a good role, I think, for somebody with my skill set. I don’t know if public officials are tuning into this, but I sure hope that their staffs have. I know that’s true for some public health agencies, and I’ve also had some contact from a couple of federal agencies.

Q: How do you decide the topics?

A: The ones for this week have been pretty focused on people with health expertise and disaster management expertise. I will still try to have one or two calls per week with people who can talk about public health, but there are other areas that need to be amplified. Next week, I’m going to have a group of historians talking about historical cases that we can build on, and an expert in criminology and criminal justice will talk about crime and pandemics.

Once a week, I want to have a journalist who can talk to us about what it’s like to cover this story. I’ve already talked to Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic in a call last week. This week I talked to Andrew Revkin, director of the Initiative on Communication & Sustainability in Columbia University’s Earth Institute and former reporter for The New York Times, on a March 25 #COVIDCall and Adam Rogers, from Wired magazine, for a March 26 discussion. 

The other thing is I’m going to broaden the global focus. I’ve already talked to experts from Germany and Chile about what COVID-19 response has been there, as well as experts who provided perspective on the pandemic in Italy, and I plan to do the same for South Korea. I’m just trying to keep that sort of balance of voices and geography and skills in the mix.

Q:  How do you find these people?

A: Many of them are people I’ve already known for a long time, either personally or I’ve known about their work. I already had sort of a bat signal for disaster researchers out there. I’ve also used Twitter to ask for people who are interested to talk, and that’s brought forward quite a few interesting experts.

Q: Last week, you talked to Esther Chernak, MD, from Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health. How did you know her before that #COVIDCall discussion? Do you have any other Drexel experts lined up?

A: I first interviewed her back in the 2000s, when she worked with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, to talk about what was happening in public health departments in the context of 9/11.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anybody that Drexel has world class experts, and that we have particular strength with experts on pandemics not just because of our public health school and our medical school, but also because of the College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences. If you look across Drexel’s departments of history and civil engineering and public health and nursing and health professions, you’re going to find a lot of people who have deep expertise. There are quite a few Drexel folks that I want to talk to.

Q: How do you prepare for these interviews?

A: My preparation has been less about providing my own perspective and more about curating these conversations. We talk about what’s in the news, so like everybody, I just try to keep up with what’s happening. But I’m also showing how experts work from what’s in the news at that moment and use the broader scope of their deep expertise and what they have seen in the past. My preparation then involves trying to familiarize myself with their work and trying to craft questions that tap into their expertise.

But mostly, honestly, these are brilliant folks who you kind of turn loose with an open question and they really do a lot of work informing. I was looking back at Esther Chernak’s conversation. She’s just a master public health communicator. With a few questions, she was able to take an hour and turn it into the best public health briefing on COVID-19 that I’ve heard, and that includes the head of the CDC.

Q: Will COVID-19 and #COVIDCalls influence your teaching and/or research? What’s the impact for you personally?

A: I already teach disaster history, and disaster history is always connected with the present, so this will just become part of my teaching. I think I’m going to teach a course in the summer on the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of my research is about communication in disaster, so I’m literally doing that work in real time.

In terms of a broader ambition, I’d like to see something like a Union of Concerned Scientists, but for disaster. Can I do that with a daily one-hour webinar? No. But can we use this as an opportunity to build a stronger community of researchers? Absolutely!

We do not have great capacity in the United States for multi-disciplinary disaster research, but I want to show that there is a multi-disciplinary research community that can come together, and when their voices get together, it’s actually pretty powerful.