“Is the U.S. Knee-Deep in ‘Epidemics,’ or Is That Just Wishful Thinking?”

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The Story

“Is the U.S. Knee-Deep in ‘Epidemics,’ or Is That Just Wishful Thinking?”
by Zachary Siegel
New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2018

The Pitch

Hi X,

My name’s Zachary Siegel and I’m a freelancer covering science and public health for outlets like Wired, Slate, Vice, New York Magazine, MIT’s Undark Magazine, and The Daily Beast, among others. Here’s my website http://www.zacharysiegel.com. Last year, I graduated with a master’s in journalism from the University of California, where I focused on science writing.

“An Epidemic of Epidemics”

Be it actual health or social malaise, America is rife with epidemics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an epidemic as an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”

Epidemics are born by “vectors,” infectious agents that spread through blood, sometimes air, and when exposed to humans, produce a constellation of symptoms. Common solutions involve vaccination, inoculation, quarantine, and isolation. The goal is always to stop the bad thing from spreading.

But the vectors threatening the health and well-being of Americans have become abstract, and even harder to imagine than tiny serpentine viruses. The ’80s and ’90s were marked by a crack-cocaine epidemic. The latest spate of mass shootings has experts invoking an epidemic of gun violence. Today, any “bad” thing affecting swaths of people is considered an epidemic.

Since the turn of the century, there has been simultaneous suicide and opioid epidemics. Combined, the frequency of suicide and overdoses has lowered the overall life expectancy of Americans for the past two years, which hasn’t happened since 1918, when the Spanish flu infected nearly 675,000 Americans.

What’s the “vector” that caused of 46,000 suicides in 2016? Or the 64,000 drug overdose deaths? What about the mass shootings? Surely, the causes are not molecular. But to some the causes look obvious: too many guns, too much drugs.

But there’s no medical technology to inoculate someone from killing themselves. Cops have tried and failed to “quarantine” and “isolate” the flow of drugs. What is a border wall if not a gigantic quarantine? Legislative efforts to prevent human exposure to bullets remains gridlocked. Rather than objects like guns and drugs, it’s human beings themselves that are causing these epidemics. We’re the virus. The sentient agents.

In a First Words column, I’ll trace the history of elusive “social epidemics,” and how we began to define complex social ills in epidemiological terms. I’ll argue that by doing so, we perpetuate a fantasy of technocratic solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Thanks for considering,



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