In an effort to increase public knowledge and conversely decrease the urge to run screaming into the nearest panic room during the current coronavirus crisis, Duke University Press made its books on pandemics and contagion free to publicly access online through June 1. Journal articles on the same topics are free until October 1. This is a timely offering from the press that is widely read and known for its production of incisive and deeply researched studies. This analysis and information is particularly needed now while we bear up under ignorant, contradictory, and self-aggrandizing responses from the executive branch of the United States federal government. Indeed, cooperation and clear-eyed, principled research has saved humanity before during similarly pervasive plagues, and sharing this knowledge will likely help save us again.
On the webpage that lists the “Navigating the Threat of Pandemic” syllabus, there are five books, six journal articles, and one entire issue of the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. This allotment deals with the most intriguing and bedeviling questions that arise out of viral outbreaks among humans. (And the books, I believe, offer the most intriguing studies.)
Regarding the question of how we might ward off future epidemics, two books consider developed plans, how they are implemented, and the ramifications of their deployment. Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts by Frédéric Keck looks back at the steps taken by Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan after the SARS outbreak of 2003. The responses ranged from allying microbiologists with veterinarians and birdwatchers to track the mutations of flu viruses in birds and humans and create strategies of preparation, to public health officials arranging the slaughter of thousands of birds. Lyle Fearnley’s book Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter, deals with the now, with attempts being made to halt the next pandemic by carefully examining what is understood to be a breeding ground in southern China, specifically the nation’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake. The author breaks down the complexity of tracing the genesis of lethal viruses by accompanying virologists and veterinarians as they encounter duck farming systems and wild geese breeding in the course of their research. Global health, it turns out, is entangled in the systems we’ve developed to nourish ourselves.
The question of how the images generated by films (including public health broadcasts) and television shaped the generally understood connection between pathologized bodies and the propagation of disease is explored by Kirsten Ostherr’s Cinematic Prophylaxis: Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health. Ostherr argues that ideas about racial impurity and sexual degeneracy undergirded messages that ostensibly were intended to inform audiences about public health.
Priscilla Wald’s Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative similarly takes a meta-discursive view, but deals with a wider range of media that convey stories that follow a particular formulaic arc. In essence, the outbreak narrative consists of identifying an emerging infection, which is then chased through a (global) network of contacts and contagion, ultimately ending in the epidemiological labor that ends the threat. It is a work of intellectual history that means to show that the stories we trade constrain our thinking about global health and the significance of human interactions.
Another important question to pose and answer is what lies at the root of anti-vaccination movements and how it is that they manage to gain a great deal of traction. The book Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853–1907 by Nadja Durbach examines this campaign in the United Kingdom and determines that proponents of the movement primarily were working-class people who saw their children not as potential disease carriers (who would then be dangers to the rest of the populace), but rather as vulnerable to contamination and to violation by the overweening power of the state. We can see that same issues play out now in the US where personal agency and pseudoscience are pitted against the recommendations and orders of the local and federal government.
That Duke University Press has made these studies publicly available is commendable. It’s a step in the direction of helping us think in rigorous, nuanced ways when a threatening wave of disease and death is urging us to panic. We should not panic. It behooves us to take a moment to see what’s in front of us, and take another to see what we have done in the past to manage precisely these kinds of public emergencies. It is also important to take a moment to imagine what the outcomes of our actions might be.