Even in the midst of widely publicized public health emergencies, like the recent Ebola outbreak, epidemiologists largely remain invisible to the general public. Though the figure of hazmated healthcare and epidemic control staff has become perennial, the only glimpse we get of the epidemiologists is the odd press conference clip. This renders fictional representations of epidemiologists the most readily available source for public culture configurations of their role in contemporary emergencies. Films like Outbreak and Contagion, which revolve around the story of a infectious disease pandemic, as well as World War Z or the recent remakes of The Planet of the Apes, which would be more readily recognized as belonging to the sphere of science fiction, have all in their time achieved blockbuster levels of success.
There is an extra reason why we should take this genre seriously: that internationally leading epidemiological institutions like the US CDC do so. To take the example of Contagion, the CDC seems not only to have endorsed its message, but also offered training for its lead actors. Moreover the zombie pandemic genre has been mobilized by the CDC in a successful publicity campaign for pandemic preparedness (the so-called Zombie Preparedness Campaign), with the agency’s Dr. Ali Khan (the then director of the US CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response) being warmly received at the SciFi festival Dragon*Con (2011).
The way in which epidemiologists are depicted in “pandemic apocalypse” movies varies from film to film. And yet there are some common, structural traits, which render them into a “culture heroes”. The term commonly refers to mythical characters, like the Biblical Noah, who save humanity from a cataclysmic event, or who transform the former via a vital new invention or discovery (e.g. the Titan Prometheus). The way the fictional epidemiologist fits this role is striking: for rather than simply seeking out to eradicate the “killer-virus”, he or she is burdened with the task to resolve the mystery of its origins (in the common belief that this may lead to an effective vaccine or serum) whilst at the same time salvaging humanity’s most endangered trait: its sociality. No mere virus-slayer, the epidemiologist is charged with the task of safeguarding not only our survival as life forms but also as human beings.
This visual narrative portrays pandemic emergency as a process in which, faced with mass death, humans relinquish any other-oriented sociality and enter a non-ethical mode of existence. Yet a rich historical and ethnographic record points out that in fact epidemics do not have a predictable or patterned social impact; the latter rather depends on complex cultural, economic and political entanglements and contingencies. Whereas real life epidemiologists operate by default in such concrete yet indeterminate contexts, cinematic epidemiologists emerge out of a landscape of sociological erasure. In order then for the epidemiologist to become a recognizable figure, the social terrain of his or her scientific knowledge and practice needs to be rendered indistinct. The cinematic epidemic has no history; being unilaterally caused by the “killer virus”, its impact is equally a-historical: the collapse of human sociality. Only in this terrain can the mythic role of the epidemiologist become intelligible: as a figure that reconstitutes human life and human being but never human history.
Exploring these themes, my recent paper “The Epidemiologist as Culture Hero” is situated within a wider critique of the visual regime of the “next pandemic”; that epidemiological fantasy that has come to haunt public health related research and investment in recent decades. Rather than simply being illustrative or auxiliary, images of this always deferred human-extinction event play a powerful role in publically legitimating a focus away from welfare and towards preparedness. And at the same time, they are formative of a separation of epidemic emergencies from their long term, structural and historical causes. The depiction of the epidemiologist as a culture hero on the big screen comes to provide a tangible form to the exceptionality of epidemics, unburdening them from the culpabilities of the past and delivering them to the urgency of a suspended future.
Christos Lynteris is a social anthropologist and Principal Investigator of the European Research Council funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.
Research leading to this piece was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564).
This piece was originally published on the Humanitarian Health Ethics Research Network on 5 February 2016. It is republished here with permission.
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