Pandemiology

As far as I know, pandemiology is not an English word nor has anyone hammered it out on the anvil of print or web forge yet. That’s why I’m happy to claim it for myself and offer it to you.

Pandemiology is the study of pandemics. As a pandemic is different from an epidemic, so is pandemiology different from epidemiology. The latter, it should be said, used to be a sacred medical branch until it’s been taken over by the social media crowds of the coronavirus pandemic – everyone is now an epidemiologist and never have the major concepts of epidemiology and its corollary, immunology, been more within reach of every layperson. Fortunately for me, however, pandemiology has been in self-isolation as a word, and the crowds have kept their distance from it.

Epidemiology is the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases and other factors relating to health. Pandemiology, on the other hand, is the reflection brought on the social, cultural, anthropological effects of contagion and epidemics on populations. The epidemiologist is concerned with what the disease does to an individual or population qua disease. A pandemiologist, who has yet to hatch as a specialist, is concerned with how social life is impacted by an epidemic outbreak.

The best pandemiologists don’t even know they are pandemiologists. They usually go by the title of novelist, essayist or memorialist, and they do their job brilliantly, albeit unwittingly. Although they don’t recognize each other as pandemiologists or belonging to a group of pandemic experts, they work as concertedly as the world’s best bio-labs.

The first to claim the title of pandemiologist avant la lettre is Mary Shelley. Justification: her novel The Last Man, written in 1826 but set in 2092, tells of the effects of a contagious disease which has devastated the world. Pandemiology was born out of it, but so was a whole literary genre, which we widely refer to today as ‘post-apocalyptic’. The pandemiologist is by necessity a master of the future tense, a pundit of the long-range lens, but also a student of the human condition. I’ll come back to this.

A variation on Shelley’s groundbreaking theme was played in Jack London’s novel Scarlet Plague, published in 1912. Begun in media res pestilentiae in 2073, the story follows one of the few survivors (soon to become the last) of a mysterious plague which has wiped out the whole world through an I-am-Legend-style landscape (or plaguescape?) with San Francisco instead of New York. For the rest of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the post-apocalyptic genre multiplied its variations on these foundational works.

There is a subtle intuition astir in all pandemiologist writings – see, I’ve managed to inflect my humble coinage grammatically. All pandemiologists understand that just as pathogens attack the human body at the molecular level, pandemics attack the human person at the existential and moral level. For this reason, pandemiology seeks to reveal the details of this type of attack. Effectively, this is what The Last Man and The Scarlet Plague do – and to fast forward to the 21st century, this is what I Am Legend, The Walking Dead or PD James’ The Children of Men have in common: once the pandemic shuts down normal life, the human condition and the dark human secret is exposed: beneath the veneer of civilisation, something is lurking deep down. And it’s not nice.

In José Saramago’s novel Blindness (read the book or at least see the 2008 film, which is gut-wrenchingly marvellous), everyone goes blind in a worldwide pandemic. The first victims are locked up in a mental asylum, where the pandemiologist can observe the dissolution of humanity as wards of blind men and women go to war with each other, fighting for rations and vying for power.

Pandemiologists take a dim view of humanity, and I’ll be the last one to blame them for it. They realise that to some extent, everything is an illusion and a pushing back of the real big questions: who are we really, what would we be willing to do if, what lies beyond freedom and human dignity?

 

 

 

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