Contagion: COVID-19, the Outbreak Narrative, and Why We Need to Change the Story


Tuesday, October 6, 2020, 6:30pm to 8:00pm


Online Event

Priscilla WaldPriscilla Wald, PhD.
R. Florence Brinkley Professor of English and Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies,
Duke University

First in the seminar series "Critical Health Humanities," sponsored by The Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard

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SARS-CoV-2 is the name of a pathogen—a disease-causing microbe—but if it causes 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 story lines 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.

Priscilla Wald is R. Florence Brinkley Professor of English and Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. She is the author ofContagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Duke University Press 2008) and Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (Duke University Press 1995). She is currently at work on a monograph entitled Human Being After Genocide.