Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative

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    Grant Glass

    Post here to about Pricilla Wald’s Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative


    Hi Grant and Class,

    I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe. I am sending my best wishes and prayers to you all.

    Here are my thoughts on one of Week 11’s readings:

    Reading the introduction of Pricilla Wald’s book, Contagious, I was shocked by the parallels between her description of the SARS pandemic and the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Talking to my parents and grandpa, they are all in shock of the social and medical implications of COVID-19, saying that this is nothing like they have seen in their lives before. Yet as Wald describes, outbreak narratives “follows a formulaic plot” (2), with common, recurring conventions. Three conventions addressed that stood out to me were “superspreaders” (4), “medicalized nativism” (8) and the temporal understanding of outbreaks (8). I believe these conventions are easily translated into today’s pandemic, embodied throughout news reports. There are so many points in this introduction that piqued my interest and framed epidemiology in ways that I have never even thought about before. For instance, Wald mentions social and political climates can shape vocabulary and response. The example that Wald gives is the influence of the politics of the Cold War merged with virology advancements to create the nickname for the Epidemiological Investigation Service as “Medicine’s FBI” (25). It makes me wonder what influences our current political and social climate shaped conversation about COVID-19? How do differences in political organizations in different countries shape the spread and degree of consequences of an epidemic? How can we change the course of outbreak narratives to prevent stigmatization and prevent the exclusion of marginalized groups from treatment?

    Angel Scialdone

    The introduction to Pricilla Wald’s Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative highlights the characteristics and societal response to disease emergence. Outbreak narratives shape attitudes towards disease and can have serious consequences in how a disease is understood (3). Friday’s lecture on the HIV/AIDS epidemic brought Wald’s ideas to life as we discussed how homosexual men were ridiculed and discriminated against during the spread of AIDS. The outbreak narrative of the AIDS epidemic disseminated information that promoted the stigmatization of homosexual men and misconstrued the nature of the disease in the public eye. The disease itself became stigmatized for being related to gay men, but in reality, other groups were at risk as well.

    Similar discriminatory mindsets still exist and are revealing themselves amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Referring to this pandemic as the “Chinese virus” inherently places blame on the Chinese population and encourages racist perceptions of disease outbreaks. Media discusses how people are avoiding Asian restaurants, Asian populated-areas (ex: Chinatown in New York), and Asian-owned businesses essentially due to the outbreak narrative of COVID-19, which emphasizes a baseless Chinese role in disease diffusion. Wald explains how there is a need for more effective, just, and compassionate responses to disease emergence in our world, and I could not agree more seeing current reactions to the coronavirus (3). Not only have we placed blame on the Chinese population for a worldwide outbreak, but many individuals, especially in my generation, are ignorant to the disease and the threat it poses. Younger people believe they are “safe” from the virus, and therefore choose to not socially distance or self-quarantine upon return from a populated spring break vacation. This reaction lacks compassion and consideration because although COVID-19 may be less severe and non-fatal for young adults, they can spread the virus to others who may not have the health, age, or resources to survive the infection. It is imperative we all do our part in both shaping an accurate outbreak narrative and responding to an outbreak in a way that fully considers the consequences of our actions.


    Priscilla Wald takes a unique approach to analyze outbreaks and infections in the modern world. In the introduction of her book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, Wald defines the term outbreak narrative as the story of disease outbreaks as chronicled by mainstream media and scientific publications. She describes the outbreak narrative as predictable “following a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes a discussion of global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment” (2). Wald uses the SARS outbreak of 2003 as a case study to illustrate the outbreak narrative in reality. As she describes SARS and how it unfolds as an outbreak narrative I could not ignore the striking similarities to the current coronavirus outbreak. Wald’s explanation of the term “medicalized nativism” was the most impressionable for me. She defines medicalized nativism as a social attitude that “implies the almost superstitious belief that national borders can afford protection against communicable diseases” (8). During this current outbreak, I have definitely seen a surge in these kinds of social attitudes as well as the kind of xenophobic rhetoric that is often spearheaded by current political powers. I hope that instead of playing the “blame game” we as a society can instead take this as an opportunity to reevaluate our relationships with community organizations, improve health care infrastructure, and prioritize social responsibility.

    Grace Sword

    I bet I, along with several students, upon reading this introduction, thought about the “Household Items Hoarding of 2020” in response to COVID-19. The very threat of a pandemic can bring about the end of the world mindsets often portrayed in movies as “normal” middle-class citizens frantic decision to buy out all the grocery store shelves, or in our COVID-19 case, every toilet paper bundle in existence. While not everyone is buying out all of the supplies and going to crazy levels, like my family and I who only buy 1 per shopping visit, I personally know people who are living the stereotypical “outbreak narrative”. My friend’s father bought a gun and taught her how to use it. Never, not once in her life has her dad brought up the idea of teaching her how to shoot a gun, but then this pandemic comes along, and he’s the next street over leaving a gun with my friend every time he goes out. On top of this she informed me he has also stooped to the level of a hoarder, especially of dill pickles, half and half, and you guessed it, toilet paper.
    I agree with Priscilla Wald on how we, as a society, “need to understand the appeal and persistence of the outbreak narrative because the stories we tell about disease emergence have consequences”. We need to have a more realistic and calmer reaction in catastrophic event movies when life itself is threatened, otherwise, we have videos of single mothers crying because she can’t get any diapers for her kids. After all, some idiot, who is probably not even pregnant, decided he wanted to make a profit off of this virus. Thank goodness that is illegal now.

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