Thursday, December 3, 2009

Leper Colony, Community of Disease -- Nic Mooney

As established in Contagious, there is something uniquely disturbing about the insidious spread of infection: close contact, societal bonds, friendship, and love are marked with danger, and these methods that otherwise heal must be shunned instead: prized contact with other people is a hazard. We've all experienced this in little ways: i.e., when you have a cough, and your friends don't want to get too close. But a permanent disease is another monster: if illness as minor and temporary as a cold can cause loneliness, one that persists can utterly transform. Diagnosis of an STD changes your sex and love lives forever, in terms of who you choose to interact with and who will interact with you.
This is also reflected in the treatment of Cedar Creek in Outbreak: it is permanently tainted, and thus becomes the Other, the friend you shun, the potential partner you refuse, or for the antagonists, the human beings you bomb. It is only in the discovering of the antidote that the people of Cedar Creek become humans again. We get our happy ending, but what if there was no conspiracy or antidote? Would Dustin Hoffman have wanted to intervene? The people of Cedar Creek would still reside in the Other territory -- only their health can redeem them.
In thinking of parallels, I was drawn to the fascinating history of leper colonies. Isolated on islands with no contact with the uninfected except perhaps a few religious caretakers, a community of disease is forced upon them. Unlike Cedar Creek, death was not inevitable, but their lingering infection marked them as a threat. If the only people you ever have contact with all have leprosy, do those without it still exist? And does the condition still exist? I believe their status as infected lingers on most poignantly in the lives they used to have: a time before infection, a time of mobility, a time of many people...these are not sensations that are easily erased. When I discovered I might have an STD, it's as if my life split in two...the careless time before and the utterly foreign, utterly terrifying time after. When it turned out I didn't, the chasm vanished and my life was one again, though perhaps the terror lingers on in a tiny way -- the horrible sensation of knowing what it might be like to be the Other, if only for a day.

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