Today we offer a guest post from Priscilla Wald, author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. You can also read Wald's comments in the Durham Herald-Sun today and listen to her interview on CBC's The Current.
I am not surprised to see the coverage of the swine flu pandemic following
the conventions of what, in Contagious, I call “the outbreak narrative.” The storyline
will be familiar from news coverage of pandemics past and popular fiction,
non-fiction, and film: a new microbe surfaces at a “Ground Zero” and
outbreaks are soon reported from around the globe. News media offer
round-the-clock coverage, emphasizing the uncertainty of the danger and the
efforts underway to address it. Many journalists and medical experts urge
calm and offer sound advice. But the message is characteristically that
pandemics are a medical problem and that the solutions are quarantine,
drugs, and vaccines.
It is certainly important to disseminate information about a potential or ongoing pandemic. And quarantine, medical care, and vaccines are crucial. But the outbreak narrative is not just (maybe not primarily) about the pandemic. It is a story about global transformation; it registers anxieties about a shrinking and ever more interdependent world. The constant coverage can produce counterproductive fear, despite the best efforts of the most responsible journalists. It can stigmatize individuals, groups, locales, and behaviors. It can make disease seem inevitable in some populations and unacceptable in others. It can make communicable disease, which might spread into populous world centers, seem more devastating than the chronic (and often easily treatable or preventable) diseases and conditions that have much larger mortality rates among impoverished populations. Communicable diseases are a fact of life; people will suffer and die. But illness and death should not be inevitable for some populations and unacceptable for others.
The outbreak narrative can paradoxically offer reassurance and foster passivity where it should promote responsible action. It is comforting to know that medical experts are on the job and to have confidence that they are best equipped to solve the problem of a pandemic. It is harder to think about the structural problems that seem too large to solve, and the outbreak narrative obscures them. Diseases of all kinds flourish where people are malnourished, living in excessively close quarters, and having little or no access to health care. It is not true that we cannot afford to address those problems; in fact, we cannot afford not to.