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  • After the OutbreakNarrative, Infrastructure, and Pandemic Time
  • Sari Altschuler (bio)

On March 22, 2020, the New York Times published a collectively authored piece called “How the Virus Got Out.” Appearing just eleven days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the article seeks to explain how COVID-19 transitioned in a few short months from an isolated outbreak in a second-tier Chinese city to a global crisis. The article’s opening image is a map that juxtaposes two locations on the streets of Wuhan: a seafood market and a train station.

The first site, the Huanan seafood market, has been cast by Western media as an exotic foreign space where outmoded Eastern traditions continue to thrive. As anthropologists Christos Lynteris and Lyle Fearnley explain, “wet markets,” like the one where cases of COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, are depicted by Western media as “chaotic versions of oriental bazaars, lawless areas where animals that should not be eaten are sold as food.” Seeking to identify the source and apportion blame, for example, Western media swirled with early rumors that a Chinese woman eating bat soup was responsible. Texas senator John Cornyn drew on this story long after it had been debunked. “China is to blame,” he declared in mid-March 2020, “because [of] the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that” (Shen-Berro).

The second site is the Hankou train station, an emblem of modernity and even futurity. The Hankou station serves as the main terminal for high-speed trains that travel up to 350 kilometers per hour and connect Wuhan to other major urban hubs like Shanghai. When a planned extension is completed, the Hankou station will link the east coast of China and cities farther inland, like Chengdu, a two-thousand-kilometer trip. The station already moves up to three hundred thousand people a day (Garrett). [End Page 126]

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Fig. 1.

Image of the first infections. This image depicts a stylized street map of Wuhan with a fuchsia-outlined structure labeled “Huanan seafood market” and a fuchsia dot inside the market. One block to the left is a black-outlined structure labeled “Tens of thousands passed through Hankou train station every day.” Turquoise arrows point in opposite directions along train lines. The map bears the caption “Many of the first known cases clustered around a seafood market in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million and a transportation hub.” From The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. Used under license.

The New York Times article faithfully reproduces the first stages of the “outbreak narrative,” a genre identified by Priscilla Wald in her book Contagious, which describes the very familiar and highly formulaic story through which we have understood such global health events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The outbreak narrative invariably begins with people marked as “primitive,” who are “implicitly incorporated collectively as populations, into the prehistory of ‘humanity’ and [End Page 127] thereby made expendable” (261). The problem of such a disease is “less in its novelty than in its familiarity as one among many ‘frightening new maladies’ awaiting imminent release into the circuits of a global infrastructure” (6).

The outbreak narrative concludes when doctors and scientists contain the threat. In his book The Next Pandemic, Ali Khan, former director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, shows how that story works: he receives a report of an outbreak, goes somewhere exotic, watches the disease spread, locates the source, and contains it. For example, he finds himself aboard a cruise ship in Honolulu with numerous cases of diarrhea. He asks a series of questions, performs “a bit of statistical analysis,” and finds “one correlation of particular interest. It was the linkage between the number of cups of ice consumed and the likelihood of getting sick. Bingo” (8–9). Having determined the source of transmission to a “big open bin,” Khan opines, “as is so often the case in matters of public health, once you’ve isolated the problem, the solution comes down to...


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pp. 126-155
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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