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How music of past pandemics can predict human behavior now

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in earlier this year, few people expected the drastic impact it would have on our society. But one CU Boulder researcher heard some aspects coming from a long way off: debates over where the virus originated, resistance to mask-wearing and the intense politicization of the public health response. 

Austin Okigbo, an associate professor of ethnomusicology, studies South African music created during epidemics. According to Okigbo, certain themes reverberate through periods of widespread illness.

“There is a big divide between cultural ways of thinking about disease and medical ways of thinking about disease,” Okigbo said. 

Though the science behind previous pandemics is often well-documented, Okigbo set out to explore the social reaction. 

“Music is an expressive form. The arts bring out what exists in the minds of people,” he said.

As scientists track a virus as it spreads across society, people’s minds and emotions can run wild, too, causing what Okigbo calls “epidemiological noise.”

“It’s no longer just the biological virus,” Okigbo said. “Now we’re dealing with the pandemic of misinformation and the pandemic of political bickering.” 

In previous research, Okigbo looked at three major diseases in South African history—smallpox, the influenza of 1918 and HIV/AIDs. He found glaring similarities between all three:

  • The resistance to vaccinations or public health guidelines
  • The division of communities and families
  • The rise of conspiracy theories about where the virus originated and who is spreading it

Okigbo found that social and cultural events prior surrounding pandemics fueled the responses and behaviors toward them. 


Although a vaccination for smallpox was created in the mid-1700s, it did not get widely distributed in South Africa for nearly 200 years. 

Following the colonial trade routes, a British anti-vaccination movement spread into South Africa, causing many people to become skeptical of the smallpox vaccination. 

The tension divided communities and families.

Austin Okigbo

Austin Okigbo: professor

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