Andreas Bernard follows the narrative patterns of epidemics

In May 1980, the World Health Organization declared the eradication of smallpox, an unprecedented success of health policy surveillance and recording. The path of the devastating epidemic ended with the “last patient”, a cook from Somalia. Four years later, a new, mysterious infectious disease infects humanity, AIDS, officially known as “Patient Zero”, Gaiden. DugasEntering the stage, due to its initially “different” sexual transmission paths, offers a variety of material for collective imaginations.

Andreas Bernard, a cultural scientist who teaches at Lüneburg, chose two cases for his study of “The Narrative of Epidemics from the 18th Century.” The title “Chain of Contagion” already reflects a double interest, the superficial history of epidemics and their poetic interpretation, which, according to Bernard, also determines the ability to fight epidemics. However, anyone hoping for a recapitulation of the corona pandemic will be disappointed, as this last global outbreak played only a small role in the pandemic. Such a “breakdown of an era,” the reason says, “cannot be summed up any more today.”

In the different narrative styles of smallpox and AIDS, Bernard initially articulates two opposing goals: if smallpox eradication was about controlling the population around, the imaginations of the early days of AIDS were threatening to blur the boundaries of the disease. It became clear that the “immunization time bomb” was not limited to “risk groups”. “Fear was faster than disease.”

In Ducasse, the media found a legendary criminal figure who combined beauty, adultery and death. Stigma became a social symbol of disease, not just the physical infection but the symptoms as well.

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The fight against infectious diseases, which was prevalent until the early 20th century – first smallpox, then cholera, tuberculosis, influenza and diphtheria – which the author continues in the following chapters, was in a certain sense a war of faith. A new experimental discipline, bacteriology, emerged. Although proponents of the miasma theory believed that geographic environmental conditions—airborne, invisible “miasmas”—caused epidemics, infectious diseases were transmitted from person to person.

In the general desire to capture the pathogen, this controversy was emphasized to varying degrees until the beginning of the 20th century. Although miasmas are spoken of throughout the “disease travel books,” abstract “microorganisms” experimentally demonstrated in the laboratory initially elude description.

Above all, however, the two narrative forms produced different actions: in the first case, health and social policy prevention – such as draining swamps, improving living conditions and, in the case of cholera, infrastructure such as water pipes – or it was about detective surveillance. Germ through chains of carriers. This became more difficult when it became clear that healthy people could be infected, as in 1889 Mary Mallon, the first “superspreader” who became a “harbinger of death” as a healthy carrier of typhoid bacilli in New York. Case of acute epidemic policy exemption.

Names such as Bernard Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Emil von Behring associated not only with discovering the restless and detour-driven hunt for pathogens, but also the role of communication media. The letter played an important role because it carried not only data but also germs and lost its epidemiological importance with the invention of telegraphy, which cut off the transport of data and goods. The experience remains that “non-contacts are immune”.

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In the last part, the author traces some of the stories of immunity carried out on outsiders, starting with early vaccine experiments and continuing to modern experimental systems in the laboratory. In doing so, he places the epidemiologist on an equal footing with the metropolitan figure of the stroller or the detective. One of the book's transitional highlights is Bernard's parallel between the modern crisis of storytelling and the futile attempt to reconstruct chains of contagion in emerging cities.

Although the author ultimately provides only an overview of the corona pandemic, his scientific perspective casts a glowing light on the epidemic's narrative patterns, from conspiracy to its apothecic infectious policy management to confessions of ignorance. His book reads like a detective novel, even if it is an occasional strain for him, guaranteeing readers an open mind.

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