• Valentina Koumoulou

Book Review - Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative by Priscilla Wald

Photo credit: https://www.amazon.com/Contagious-Cultures-Carriers-Outbreak-Narrative/dp/0822341530

“Disease binds the human race together as with an unbreakable chain”

Cyrus Edson[1]

In the past two years, the word “contagious” has been used more than enough in everyday life, when the Coronavirus pandemic burst and altered reality as we know it. However, pandemics and disease, in general, have been part of humanity since the beginning of time. In fact, it is argued that they constitute either nature’s reaction to overpopulation or simply happen due to the emergence of traveling across countries, thus making the transmission of new and harmful organisms easier. This book discusses two types of questions dealing with the impact of diseases as well as the narratives surrounding the experience of diseases. Throughout the book, the author argues that the transmission of culture is very similar to the transmission of diseases. Having read “Contagious” opens new perspectives on how the ways of human interaction are the cornerstone of contagion.

What is contagion?

To begin with, the word contagion literally means “to touch together”. One of its earliest usages in the 14th century referring to the circulation of ideas and attitudes[2]. In addition, Wald entertains the idea that “contagion is more than an epidemiological fact, while it is also a foundational concept in the study of religion and of society, with a long history of explaining how beliefs circulate in social interactions”[3]. A community is the perfect place for a contagion of a disease to flourish, given that social interactions constitute the ideal way of transmitting microorganisms. Moreover, religious services and traditions are part of everyday life in some cultures and social groups, thus making contagion easier. Against this backdrop, the author argues that “the interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community”[4]. It is an integral part of social life to interact with other people, but it is also the main reason why diseases, even as common as the flu, are so easy to pass on.

Why is contagion linked to the existence of community?

A community is an organism full of people who interact with each other, enabling disease transmission. In fact, disease emergence embodies the dilemma that inspires the most critical of human narratives, namely the necessity and danger of human contact[5]. In regards to epidemiology, human contact can be characterised as one of the most crucial elements of contagion, given that interaction between humans is not regulated in ways that disease transmission could be eliminated easily. The Covid-19 pandemic taught the newer generations quite extensively on that issue.

Furthermore, the author suggests that the power and danger of bodies in contact illustrate the simultaneous fragility and tenacity of social bonds[6]. It is a fact that social bonds between people are characterised by a certain fragility, much like the human organism when it comes in contact with a virus. The notion of communicable disease carries the logic of social responsibility in the sense that one’s actions might have effects on others[7]. This is highly important when dealing with a pandemic or with a contagious disease in general, given that the burden of responsibility towards others falls differently on each person’s shoulders. What is noteworthy is that epidemiology depicts human beings’ “mortal struggle with their environment, social and biological”[8].

“Emerging viruses know no country”

Priscilla Wald

The necessity of balance

According to Wald, “human carriers teach the shared lesson of psycho analysis and bacteriology: that human beings lack self-knowledge. Like Oedipus, we do not know who—or what—we are. It is what makes us dangerous, and it mandates new codes of conduct”[9]. As the ancient Greeks taught us, when nature or fate feel that balance is threatened, they always come up with a way to restore it. The danger we carry as human beings, is not only metaphorical but also physical, especially when considering that the human body carries innumerable forms of bacteria and microorganisms, which during social interaction are constantly being transmitted. Moreover, while observation by researchers suggested the transmissibility of certain diseases, their source remained a mystery and in consequence, was attributed to an imbalance between human beings and their environment[10].

In addition, imbalance plays a great role in the psychological state of people, especially when they are confronted with the emergence of new highly contagious diseases leading to an epidemic. More specifically, there is a kind of psychological numbing when people have to deal with disasters of great magnitude, such as an epidemic, which could also provoke the dissolution of social organization. What is also noteworthy with regards to the significance of balance is the idea proposed by the author that “with the multiplication of modern means of transportation, and with the increased movement and migration of peoples, no part of the world is so remote from one another as to be secure from the invasion of the diseases of which man is the principal carrier”[11].

The case of Typhoid Mary

A famous example of a contagious disease story that was the first to actually make people understand the burden of contagion and the social responsibility of even a healthy unaffected carrier is the case of Typhoid Mary. According to Ward, the story of Typhoid Mary revealed how challenging it is to teach infected people to guard against infecting others, especially considering that there are people, such as Typhoid Mary, who are not affected by the symptoms of a contagious disease even though they might be carriers of it. She was a cook in the US who is believed to have infected between 51 to 122 people with typhoid fever, being the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier. However, even after her diagnose she continued her work as a cook, thus exposing others to the disease until the authorities managed to capture her and put her in quarantine.

What is noteworthy, is that the story of the first recognised healthy carrier of typhoid influenced significantly public-health policies[12]. To be more specific, “it harnessed the authority of science to depict the medical implications of the changing spaces, interactions, and relationships attendant on urbanization and industrialization”[13], something that allowed people to understand the power of their own social environment.

More importantly, though, the story of Typhoid Mary helped to adjust the experience of those spaces, showing how the realization of those connections required new models of existing in the world. The author suggested that “it offered a medical basis for emergent ideas of social and political belonging, including a renovated sense of social responsibility in a time of growing individualism”[14].

The narrative of contagion

The media in every era are responsible for creating narratives, especially when combined with politics wishing to make changes in the way society reacts to reality. According to Wald, “carrier narratives helped to transform the spatial and social relationships of a community imagined according to the precepts of turn-of-the-century U.S. nationalism: strangers in the simultaneously generative and dangerous contact of affiliative bonds”[15]. Moreover, continuous change in the language through which the media still illustrate viral contagion show how fluid the true image of a pandemic is as well as the power of those with information is by contrast to the public.

In conclusion, what the author is trying to pass on to the reader is the fact that communicable diseases are an integral part of life and as a result, they will continue to emerge and circulate. Disease transmission works through communication between people, something that could not cease to exist. According to Dewey, “each individual is the carrier of the life-experience of his group and society exists through a process of transmission, quite as much as biological life”[16]. In the end, contagion depicts the necessity of human interaction no matter the stakes.

[1]Edson, Cyrus. 1998. “The Microbe As Social Leveller”. In The Gospel Of Germs: Men, Women, And The Microbe In American Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [2] Wald, P., 2008. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke Univ. Press. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid. [15] Ibid. [16] Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy And Education.


Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy And Education.

Edson, Cyrus. 1998. “The Microbe As Social Leveller”. In The Gospel Of Germs: Men, Women, And The Microbe In American Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wald, P., 2008. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.