SARS Plays Into Cultural Fears

March 31, 2003

 

The fear sparked by new epidemics such as SARS is fueled not just by the very real danger it poses, but also because it reflects anxieties already present in our culture, says Priscilla Wald, a Duke professor who studies contagion, disease, and popular culture. "This is what everybody's been afraid of," Wald says. "What happens if the common cold gets deadly?"

Already a staple of science fiction writers such as Robin Cook in Invasion and Stephen King in The Stand, that fear is more pronounced when people have a keen awareness of bioterrorism and a heightened sense of vulnerability, she says. "Anxieties surrounding epidemics are always several things at once. They are about the disease and the spread of the disease, but at the same time the threat of the disease is always refracted through the cultural anxieties that it taps into."

What are those anxieties? Globalization, mobility, the balance between individual rights and those of public to be protected, immigration, and the porosity of borders, among others, she says. Wald sees a parallel to the early twentieth century and the story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon was a sexually active Irish immigrant and domestic worker who happened to be married. That made her the perfect villain in the story of the typhoid epidemic at a time when there were deep fears about immigration, women's mobility, and sexuality.

Similar anxieties were expressed in the case of "Patient Zero," the Canadian flight attendant who was linked to forty of the first 248 cases of AIDS in North America, says Wald, an associate professor of English and a faculty associate in the Duke Center for the Study of Medical Ethics and the Humanities. She is writing a book about Typhoid Mary and Patient Zero that examines contagion and how cultural attitudes about disease influence the ways in which disease is treated.