If the current COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that contagious diseases are far more than medical emergencies: they are social and cultural crises that threaten our very humanity. Epidemics can bring out the best in us (caring for loved ones, making donations to those less fortunate than ourselves, etc.), but also our worst emotions (including depression resulting from isolation and the persecution of marginal peoples). In my own area of expertise, religion, we can see that epidemics have prompted violent forms of penance, from the Flagellants of medieval Europe who tormented themselves in atonement for sins thought to have brought down the Black Death as divine punishment, to the plague expulsion festivals still held in Taiwan today.
This project, inspired by the Social Science Research Council's "Rapid-Response Grants on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences" program, represents Academia Sinica's contribution to addressing these issues. Thanks to the unstinting efforts of scholars from our humanities and social science institutes and research centers, we have prepared a total of 19 essays that consider the ways in which people and their governments have responded to the challenges of contagious diseases, including not only in Taiwan but throughout the world. In the humanities, we have examined the impact of the Spanish Flu in Taiwan, while also chronicling how works of literature in China and the West have depicted the horrors of contagious diseases. In the social sciences, we have shown how the openness of Taiwan's government response to COVID-19 has enhanced both people's trust in epidemic prevention measures and their overall effectiveness, assessed the trials faced by quarantined individuals plus their loved ones, and portrayed the emotional stresses that Taiwan's heroic healthcare workers face on a daily basis.
Other essays confront the delicate issue of how to find a balance between epidemic prevention and the needs of a democratic society, such as utilizing digital contact tracing while also respecting people's privacy. And then there is the scapegoating of patients or people who were in contact with them. Nobody who has seen photos of terrified infants and small children in raincoats and masks being sprayed with disinfectant by medical personnel in full PPE cannot stop and ponder the emotional and even moral consequences of how a society chooses to cope with contagious diseases.
These and other studies shed new light on the effects of COVID-19 and other contagious diseases in Taiwan, as well as in the contexts of Chinese and Western history and the current pandemic's devastation worldwide. We hope that this project can help spread Academia Sinica's scholarship to a general audience while demonstrating the value of such research in responding to society's needs.
This project would not have been possible without the generous support of Academia Sinica President James C. Liao, Vice-President Huang Chin-hsing, Deputy Executive Secretary Hwang Shu-perng, and the IRB on Humanities and Social Science Research. I would also like to express heartfelt gratitude to all project participants and their research assistants plus administrative staffs, as well as my own assistant Chang Hui-chun. A special note of thanks to Professor Chen Hsi-yuan and his colleagues at the Academia Sinica Center for Digital Cultures for their dedication in preparing our project's Chinese and English websites.
ASCDC Director Chen Hsi-yuan
COVID-19 is currently the main issue at the forefront of everyone's mind. If we can publicize relevant research online, then we can help society respond more rapidly and effectively to its current needs. However, before the launch of this website, many online sites both in Taiwan and abroad had already begun to focus on the effects of this pandemic, including the Ji-Yi Remembering COVID-19 pandemic website established by Professor Lin Wen-Yuan's team from National Tsing Hua University, the Max Planck Institute's History of Science ON CALL project, etc. In light of these efforts, I often wondered if it was necessary to create another website about COVID-19.
However, as Taiwan's top academic research institution, Academia Sinica has devoted considerable time and effort towardsdoing research on COVID-19. In February 2020, President Liao united academic research organizations in Taiwan to form the "COVID-19 Collaboration Platform" consisting of 13 sub-platforms, which has achieved impressive results. In October, Academia Sinica held its annual Open House on the theme of COVID-19, with all institutes holding relevant discussions, lectures, or exhibitions both online and offline. In addition, Research Sinica, the Academia Sinica Newsletter, "Academia Sinica Popular Science Lectures", and other AS projects have featured many different responses to the pandemic… It would be a great pity if these projects were not gathered together. Harboring such thoughts, my ASCDC colleagues and I used 19 scholars' essays as the foundation to gradually build the framework for this website. Apart from Academia Sinica humanities and social science scholars' research, our website also provides popular science lectures and further readings, while allowing interactivity through games and people submitting their own stories about this disease. We hope to open a dialogue with the public, so that we can work together to reexamine the various changes brought about by the pandemic, learning from our experiences in the past to find suitable ways to respond to the needs of the present.