Contagious : The Outbreak Narrative
Date of this Version
We hosted Priscilla Wald, Duke professor and author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, for a public Zoom lecture while the university was operating remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid19 is the name of a pathogen — a disease-causing microbe — but if it is a "newly emerging infection," it is also a newly emerging, though familiar, story: the latest version of “the outbreak narrative.” Accounts of newly surfacing diseases appeared in scientific publications and the mainstream media in the Global North with increasing frequency following the introduction of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the mid-1980s. They put the vocabulary of disease outbreaks into circulation, and they introduced the concept of "emerging infections."
The repetition of particular phrases, images and storylines produced a formula that quickly became conventional as it formed the plot of the popular novels and films in the mid-1990s. These stories have consequences. As they disseminate information, they affect survival rates and contagion routes. They promote or mitigate the stigmatizing of individuals, groups, populations, spaces and locales (regional and global), behaviors and lifestyles, and they change economies. They also influence how both scientists and the lay public understand the nature and consequences of infection, how we imagine the threat and why we react so fearfully, and which problems merit our attention and resources.
Wald, Priscilla, "Contagious : The Outbreak Narrative" (2020). Center for Humanities in an Urban Environment Archives. 11.
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