For most of recorded history, humans have lived in fear of lurking epidemics — whether in the form of sweeping bubonic plague, global influenza, or SARS. Historically, such fears were validated by the terrible mortality from epidemics like the Black Death and Spanish Flu. Today, deaths from epidemic disease are rare in the developed world—far fewer Americans die each month from AIDS than from motor-vehicle accidents. Yet in our technically and medically advanced society a veritable industry of fear has emerged — making the risk of disastrous disease seem ever-present. Alarmist headlines spread anxiety about pandemic flu, health professionals caution against risky sex that could propel contagion, and government-issued warnings about bio-terror suggest that any number of epidemics might be just around the corner.
In Dread, tracing the history of epidemics in western society from the ancient Greeks to the present day, Philip Alcabes persuasively argues that our anxieties about outbreaks of disease often stray from the facts to incorporate inflated fears about what is unknown, undesirable, or misunderstood. Fear and imagination help drive the epidemic narrative—as much as and, surprisingly, often more than fact. In the 14th century, Europeans slaughtered thousands of Jews whom they accused of spreading bubonic plague through poisoned well water. In the 18th century, black Americans were forced to work in areas infested with mosquitoes on the grounds that they were racially invulnerable to yellow fever. In 21st -century America, where officials claim that radical Islamists might engage in acts of bioterrorism, our sense of global vulnerability has encouraged distrust of Muslims. Meanwhile, with a public health establishment fixated on obesity, we are told to send our children to weight-loss camps and to shun our overweight friends lest they “infect” us with their disease. Over the centuries the enemy may have changed, but the deep-seated impulse—to construct tales of epidemic proportion—has not.