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‘You just emotionally break’: understanding COVID-19 narratives through public health humanities
  1. Lise Saffran1,
  2. Ashti Doobay-Persaud2
  1. 1Department of Public Health, University of Missouri Columbia, Columbia, Missouri, USA
  2. 2Department of Medicine and Medical Education, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA
  1. Correspondence to Lise Saffran, Department of Public Health, University of Missouri Columbia, Columbia, Missouri 65211, USA; Saffranl{at}


News reports that feature the experiences of healthcare workers have shaped public conversations about the pandemic from its earliest days. For many, stories of the pandemic have been an introduction to the way public health emergencies intersect with cultural, social, structural, political and spiritual determinants. Such stories often feature clinicians and other providers as characters in pandemic tales of heroism, tragedy and, increasingly, frustration. Examining three common categories of provider-focused news narratives—the clinician as a uniquely vulnerable front-line worker, clinician frustration with vaccine and masking resistance, and the clinician as a hero—the authors argue that the framework of public health humanities offers useful tools to understand and potentially shift public conversation of the pandemic. Close reading of these stories illuminates frames that relate to the role of providers, responsibility for the spread of the virus and how the US health system functions in a global context. Public conversations of the pandemic are shaped by and shape news stories and have important implications for policy. Acknowledging that contemporary health humanities in all its iterations considers how non-clinical factors, such as culture, embodiment and power, impact our understanding of health, illness and healthcare delivery, the authors locate their argument amid critiques that focus on social and structural factors. They argue that it is still possible to shift our understanding of and telling of those stories towards a more population-focused frame.

  • Public health
  • COVID-19
  • narrative medicine

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This article is made freely available for personal use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

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Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study.

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  • Contributors LS conceived of the primary outline for the article, composed the initial draft, and

    drafted the revised version. AD-P contributed input through discussion and written feedback, and reviewed, edited and provided feedback. Both authors discussed the planned revision.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, conduct, reporting or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.