Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present

Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present

Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present

Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present

Synopsis

Until recently, plagues were thought to belong in the ancient past. Now there are deep worries about global pandemics. This book presents views from anthropology about this much publicized and complex problem. The authors take us to places where epidemics are erupting, waning, or gone and to other places where they have not yet arrived, but where a frightening story-line is already in place. They explore public health bureaucracies and political arenas where the power lies to make decisions about what is, and is not, an epidemic. They look back into global history to uncover disease trends and look ahead to a future of expanding plagues within the context of climate change. The chapters are written from a range of perspectives, from the science of modelling epidemics to the social science of understanding them.

Excerpt

D. Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund

We live in a time obsessed with killer germs (Tomes 2000). People worldwide feel a growing sense of vulnerability and uncertainty with respect to infectious diseases as an expanding list of pathogens— referred to as “emerging infections”—becomes visible to investigators in conjunction with an increasingly lower technoscientific threshold for detection that reveals more diseases and their agents than ever imagined (Kilbourne 2006). As knowledge about pathogens is produced in laboratories and disseminated through various media to enter public consciousness (Briggs 2005), anxiety is rekindled about mortality on the scale of historic plagues such as the fourteenth-century Black Death in Europe. The anxiety spurs ever more research into conditions favoring the eruption of plagues today (Morse 1993).

In concert with a new language about emerging infections, an epidemiological story line has come to dominate discussions of the threat of infectious disease. Set against the certainty that “a tsunami is coming” (Nature 2009: 9), it describes scientists' discovery of a threatening infection, its travel through global networks, and medical projects that culminate in its control (Wald 2008). Whiffs of plague emanate from the story in the form of affliction, contagion, external threat, and dangerous relations; the crisis is resolved through appropriate moral behavior, expressed as medical intervention and effected through changes in cultural practices. In the wake of the story, the people among whom the disease has been made visible are often pathologized and tainted by that association through medical profiling (Briggs 2005; Briggs with Mantini-Briggs 2003). The emotive qualities of plague persist through . . .

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