One year ago, no one had heard of COVID-19. But by December 2019, the mystery disease was spreading through China. As the new year began in 2020, the virus started spreading throughout the world, affecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Professor Chris Duvall, chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at The University of New Mexico, announced a new course will be offered about COVID-19.

“There aren’t many courses in the US thus far on the pandemic,” Duvall said. “We decided to offer the course because we’re living in a massively teachable moment. There’s a lot we’ve all learned just from our personal experiences since March, and being able to learn more formally about what we’ve experienced will hopefully help to gain an enduring perspective on the craziness of 2020. I want to learn by teaching the course, and I’ve found that students generally like the opportunity to learn about current, real-world events.”

Geography is about understanding human-environment interactions that develop spatially, he explained. Many geographers study diseases and other health matters that have a spatial element. The COVID-19 pandemic—and all pandemics—are human-environment interactions that develop through spatial process. Like many recent epidemics (such as Ebola and SARS), COVID-19 traces to human use of wildlife, and has spread through human travel for business, commerce, and tourism, Duvall explained.

The new course is Geog 499: Environmental Security: The COVID-19 Pandemic. The course is about how emerging infectious diseases pose risks to societies and about how societies respond to them. Graduate and undergraduate students can take it. It contributes directly to the online Master’s degree program in Global and National Security Studies, and the Geography BA, BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees, but the students enrolled come from several other degree programs too.

“This is generally an important topic, and since we’re all living in the midst of a pandemic it’s a good time to learn about how virulent, widespread infections affect the stability of the social institutions we depend upon. The course will contain some general, academic material—such as readings on why people think of diseases as a national security concern—but most of what we’ll do is read and watch media produced this year about the pandemic. The main project we’ll work on is to assess how the U.S. response followed pandemic-response guidelines that were established before 2020,” Duvall explained.

Duvall will teach the course. His research and teaching is generally about human-environment interactions and social-economic marginalization. He recently conducted research on trypanosomiasis epidemics in 19th-century Central Africa leading him to learn about relevant topics before the pandemic, which has exposed aspects of the structural racism he's researched in relation to drugs and drug use. He has also been involved in the Global and National Security Master’s program for the last several years and is interested in expanding course offerings in that program as well as within his home department, Geography and Environmental Studies. This course is paired with another that will be offered in Spring 2021, Geog 499: Environmental Security: Food and Water.

“Hopefully, students will gain a better understanding of how our society, and global society more broadly, handled the pandemic,” Duvall said. “The short story is that our society spent a lot of effort in the past two decades to plan and prepare for a pandemic, but our response has been pretty bad. This is not a political statement—though inevitably someone will think so because the pandemic has been politicized due to the election—but an assessment of the actual events of 2020 compared with the planning that was done prior to 2020, and generally funded by the federal government.

"I hope that students will learn to analyze the relevant documentary evidence and interpret the academic and popular media from 2020 based on their analysis. My intent is for students to gain competence in understanding how societies might respond to emerging, virulent infections so that they have the skills to be leaders in the present and when the next new infection emerges—and inevitably a new one will emerge. COVID-19 sure isn’t going to go away by next fall, unfortunately, and may be with us in a significant way for years to come."