A U.S. Death and the Morals of Epidemic

As I’m sure most of you have heard by now, the U.S. has had its first Swine Flu related death. A 23 month old toddler. It’s terrifying and sad, and now we have to wait and see if it gets much worse than this.

In other news, I’m giving a very brief presentation today in Art and Catastrophe about Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and his concern with human behavior in epidemic. Quite and interesting time to be writing this paper, let me tell you.

Here are a few of the things Defoe worries about….and I wonder if we will have to worry about them too:

–if there is a higher being responsible, punishing us for our wicked, immoral behavior. I think you all know by now my thoughts on this, but it is worth mentioning. it was a much more popular belief in Defoe’s time (that the plague was a punishment for sin <and sin itself is a disease…but I digress>) — but I wonder if there are still those out there that hold with this. Why not? If the gays caused 9/11…why not the plague?

–self-preservation and abandonment. the two go hand in hand and can not be separated. at what point does self-preservation take over? take over to the point of leaving loved ones in order to save oneself? as Defoe says, “the best physic against the plague is to run away from it”

–the dilemma (a dilemma which does not really occur in non-plague related catastrophe literature) of what I have lovingly termed (hijacked from Major Henry West in 28 Days Later) “people killing people” — what Defoe calls “in the nature of the disease that it impresses everyone the is seized upon by it with a kind of rage, and a hatred against their own kind” — a desire to spread the illness.

BUT whether the desire to spread is there or not, we have to remind ourselves that due to the nature of disease it is all just “people killing people”—right? One person becomes infected, they spread it to five people, those five people spread it to five more people each…..they all die from it. Yes, it is the contagion that kills, but we CAN NOT over look the physical act of one human passing the disease to another. Our need for society and physical closeness with other humans is what ultimately brings our downfall.

For more thoughts on this I recommend the “People Killing People” chapter of The Contagious Narrative PDF.


[now…off to present this thing that i just pulled out of my butt this morning! thank you…thank you…….]



  1. my comment is. i agree with all you are saying but are you suggesting that we cut ties with the rest of humanity for self preservation? Who would want to do that. Survive but completely alone, yuck. I don’t even like living alone that much! Is that the only way to survive… Read More? To have no human contact? but then you’d have to not have contact with animals or nature either… hmmm we could all be put in bubles and flash each other. That could be fun.

  2. Mom– (and yes it IS sad that my mother is the only one commenting on my blog today…)

    I’d like to clarify. I don’t “promote” abandonment and self imposed quarantine as a means of self-preservation, I’m arguing (and Defoe does as well) that is a natural human instinct. I think it’s dependent upon the severity of the situation for how far things would have to go before certain people would resort to these measures.

    Also I don’t mean on a national or global level, I mean on a personal level. Not self-preservation for a nation, but preservation of self…just one. Just me. Or just you.

    And by suggesting that our societal closeness will bring our downfall, I’m not really trying to say that there is an alternative to that. If I had an answer I’d give on. But the fact remains that contagious disease as we know it (the bubonic plague, influenza, etc) did not become widely prevalent until we (as the human race) stopped roaming and began to begin civilizations.

    I’m just questioning our morals in crisis the same way Defoe treats them. Barbara Fass Leavy says “ethical behavior is a question completely inseparable from the treatment of plague”

    • Self-Preservation and the Epidemic of Violence…
      Open and Closed Systems from an Ethical Framework

      This post by John Robb,


      who blogs at Global Guerillas, speaks to a perception that links the rapid diffusion (viral spread?) of our humanity’s technologic connection with the creation of a “bubble boy” response by the US Department of Defense. He sees this as a way to control invasion of hackers and terrorists who seek to compromise the security of our military.

      So your suggestion that ” societal closeness will bring our downfall” is, as I see it, being played out at the nation state/global arena in Robb’s assertion of an epidemic viral model of host/response by the DOD to the increasingly open, rapidly diffusing (eg disease spreading) world. Our collective humanity’s actions are now expressed with more unity and cohesion as we create and respond to threats…and opportunities… and we’re doing that within the confines~openess of an increasingly homogeneous mechanism of group mind.

      Robb coins the DOD response as “complete obsolescence”. Quite the euphemism for death…

      So it seems there’s a self-inflicting “grand strategic failure”– to quote Robb– working on itself as a deliberate measure of self-preservation.

      Simply put, it seems we’re killing to save. Is this really anything new or have the means of contagion and plague just shape shifted?

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