As the COVID-19 pandemic was starting its sweep across the globe in February 2020, history Ph.D. candidate Sarah Yu was set to return to Penn after spending six months traveling around Asia doing research for her dissertation on public hygiene in China.
“I came back to the U.S. from my main research trip just a week before travel from China was banned,” she says. “If I’d arranged to come back any later I don’t know what would have happened.”
The topic of her dissertation, provisionally titled “Hygiene and daily life in Republican China,” was suddenly extremely timely, as governments around the world tried to persuade citizens to change their behavior and halt the transmission of the virus.
“I look at different forms of grassroots reform movements, local governance, and community leadership that convinced people to adopt habits in their daily lives that pertain to hygiene,” she says. “These were often things that were inspired by global medical progress, but also based on local traditions and what every small community needed at the time. They were often phrased and taught to people in a way that made sense to them in terms of what kind of tangible benefits they were going to be able to get from changing their daily habits.”
Penn Today spoke with Yu about her research, what historic parallels she’s found to current pandemic responses, and what the past might tell us about how governments could better communicate public health messages.