Plagues, Epidemics and Culture: Histories of Crisis and Care, with Priscilla Wald

Join the Institute for Humanities Research Health Humanities Initiative for "Contagion: COVID-19, the Outbreak Narrative, and Why We Need to Change the Story," with Priscilla Wald. This event is Part 1 in Plagues, Epidemics and Culture: Histories of Crisis and Care. 

COVID-19 is the name of a pathogen — a disease-causing microbe — but if it is a “newly emerging infection,” it is also a newly emerging, though familiar, story: the latest version of “the outbreak narrative.” 

Accounts of newly surfacing diseases appeared in scientific publications and the mainstream media in the Global North with increasing frequency following the introduction of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the mid-1980s. They put the vocabulary of disease outbreaks into circulation, and they introduced the concept of "emerging infections." The repetition of particular phrases, images and story lines produced a formula that quickly became conventional as it formed the plot of the popular novels and films in the mid-1990s. These stories have consequences. As they disseminate information, they affect survival rates and contagion routes. They promote or mitigate the stigmatizing of individuals, groups, populations, spaces and locales (regional and global), behaviors and lifestyles, and they change economies. They also influence how both scientists and the lay public understand the nature and consequences of infection, how we imagine the threat and why we react so fearfully, and which problems merit our attention and resources.

Priscilla Wald is R. Florence Brinkley professor of English and professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke University. She is the author of "Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative" (Duke University Press 2008) and "Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form" (Duke University Press 1995). She is currently at work on a monograph entitled "Human Being After Genocide." 

Plagues, Epidemics and Culture: Histories of Crisis and Care

The COVID-19 pandemic has begun to permanently reshape our world; it has thrown into sharp relief the networks of care that support human flourishing and those structures that are inadequate and unjust.

But it is not the first or the only disease outbreak that has threatened human health nor disproportionally affected those already disadvantaged by established institutions and networks of care. In this series, invited humanities scholars discuss their research in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis.

Featuring scholars whose focus is on the histories and representations of epidemics, this series will explore what can be learned from historical changes in the cultures of care that arose from those crises. Speakers will also address how histories of bias, racism and colonialism are intimately bound up in the history of epidemics.

These talks will address how we might draw lessons and envision equitable futures of care for our own local and global communities.

These online events are free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required.


  • 5-minute introduction
  • 20-minute presentation of research by invited guest
  • 25-minute Q&A with ASU faculty host
  • 25-minute Q&A with attendees

Other events in the series

Rebecca Totaro: Wednesday, Sept. 2, 12:30–1:30 p.m.

Jeffrey Ostler: Monday, Sept. 14, 3:30–4:30 p.m.

Rana Hogarth: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2–3 p.m.

*Register for any of the events in this series at the RSVP link below.

Institute for Humanities Research
Lauren Whitby
Aug 31 2020 - 12:00pm