Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Late thoughts on Disease

I apologize if this is slightly off topic, since this is posted after the week we had these discussions in, but I still had some thoughts about Outbreak and Contagious. I really liked the book and how it showed how our society in general was and is shaped and influenced by outbreak narratives and think this way to go about looking at culture, especially with the technological changes confronting us now. The topic that I came away thinking about, though, was how disease interacts with space and time to create networks between the sick, or rather, how and why it doesn't. This is distinct from the narratives and myths that she talks about, since it focuses on the individual's experience of disease and the change in his or her perception of personhood that this might entail. If we look at the swine flu, since this is the example closest to me right now, we can see that there is a global response and that the media is treating just as Wald would expect it to. This shows that any infection that can spread rapidly, seems to be interpreted equally. It is scary and a threat, regardless of how severe the symptoms are or what the mortality rate is. There is something universal in the response, which we can see if we remember the pictures of people at airports wearing masks we could see during the SARS crisis.
However, if we look at the infected individual, we see that the swine flu is obviously totally different from SARS, typhoid or AIDS. The treatment is nothing more than rest and insolation and the duration is only a few days. The main thing we have to fear is that it makes us unable to work and interact with people face to face for a short time. The fact that the response is so similar and the diseases are so different is proof of Wald's point, but led me to ask questions about the individual's experience. We have read about the global response, which is universal in nature. We will all suffer from it, we are all in danger and we need to all protect ourselves. This leaves no room for the individual, except as a super spreader, which again is an individual that threatens us all. We see this in the movie Outbreak. The people need to be quarantined to build any sort of community. The escape attempt that ends with a jeep getting shot at is only a possible response due to the spatial constraints put on the people. The disease and the experience of being close to people with the disease did not in any way connect them, the quarantine did. Some might argue that this is also due to the fact that the disease has a 100% mortality rate, but I think even if there were survivors, we could not envision them forming any sort of community based on their shared ideal, except if it is rooted in a shared space, such as a hospital or a quarantined town. Diseases are somehow not an experience that can connect individuals except in a healthy group that fears it. This is very different from other experiences, which can connect disparate people, be they ex-military personnel, fans of a movie preparing for a new release or even shoppers preparing for black friday. This also has a temporal aspect, since diseases pass quickly, whereas other experiences don't, but the military is also only has a relatively short duration. The question I thought about is why the survivors of a disease seem to want to move past it as quickly as possible and return to the lives they led before, totally erasing all memories of the disease. This seems to be explained through stigmatization or perhaps isolation during the treatment, but with new technologies, we are never truly isolated and stigmatization would seem to somewhat prohibit the reentry into society if it was indeed strong enough. I think it would be interesting to do some sort of ethnography centered around some individuals being treated for a disease to explore this further and to move from the response to the individual experience and look at how the two interact. We see in Tsing's book, how varied and useful ethnographies can be is we allow them to branch out. Something like that would be helpful in exploring the interesting question of how diseases are actually experienced.

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