The way we talk about contagion matters. It shapes how societies respond—and whether many of us will survive.
“Paradigms—the obscure, unspoken conceptual frameworks that shape our ideas—are powerful. They bring order and understanding to our observations about the messy, changing world around us,” writes Shah. “But paradigms blind us, too, as during the cholera pandemics of the 19th century, elevating certain narratives and serving particular interests, sometimes to our peril.”
“Six months into our current pandemic, hype and desperate anticipation surround the development of drugs and vaccines. But with treatments and vaccines still months away, the fact is that we must face SARS-Cov-2—as well as the next coronavirus, influenza virus, or other novel pathogen—bereft of medical weaponry. Our only hope to stave off the worst damage is to alter our behaviors to reduce opportunities for the pathogen to spread.”
“It’s time for a new story, one that more accurately captures the reality of how contagions unfold and why. In this story, pandemics would be cast as both a biological reality and a social phenomenon shaped by human agency. And the coronavirus, if cast as any kind of monster at all, would be a Frankenstein’s monster: a creature of our own making. We, after all, created the world in which SARS-Cov-2 evolved, one in which our industry has swallowed up so much of the planet that microbes from wild animals easily slip into livestock and humans. We created the society of overcrowded prisons and nursing homes staffed by underpaid employees who must work in multiple facilities to make ends meet; in which employers force their workers to labor on meatpacking lines even if they’re sick; in which asylum seekers are crammed into detention centers; and in which people living in hard-hit cities like Detroit lack access to clean water with which to wash their hands.”
Read in full. This article appears on the cover of the July 27/August 3, 2020, edition of The Nation magazine, out now. Complimentary media log-ins or PDFs available upon request. Shah is available for select interviews.
ABOUT: Sonia Shah is a science journalist and the author of PANDEMIC: Tracking Contagion from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her fifth book, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, was published in June. Her previous reporting on the novel coronavirus for The Nation includes “How Trump Is Going to Get Away With a Pandemic,” which reported the ways in which the Trump administration cooked the data to hide the extent of the coronavirus outbreak and, in February, “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again.,” which explained how human assaults on the environment and the accelerating pace of habitat loss are the root of our growing vulnerability to pandemics.
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