Precautions and rules, or: collective responses to epidemics

Dossier “Epidemics: Perspectives from Cultural Studies”

© gemeinfrei; CC-BY-4.0; Hama Yalcouye

These days especially are seeing fierce debates about precautions and rules in managing epidemic emergencies: surveys gauging how people assess the appropriateness of certain measures are cited; protective masks are said to be ‘muzzles’ that symbolize authoritarian state repression; courts react to private lawsuits against decisions made in parliament – the pandemic and how we deal with it in the field of tension between individual rights and collective necessities is not only a sensitive political dilemma; it is also an ethical issue, too.

Discussions on the proportionality, efficiency and effectiveness of the precautions and rules introduced to contain and manage the pandemic make two things very clear. First, that individual – and sometimes existential – needs can sometimes be diametrically opposed to the collective dimension of social necessity. Second, that it is absolutely certain that reactions – collective answers to the enormous challenges that pandemics pose for societies – are necessary and need to be found.

In the current dossier of ‘Perspectives from cultural studies’, researchers address in their usual interdisciplinary manner and from a wide variety of perspectives not only the practical measures and precautions taken to deal with pandemics, but also the question of which ideas regarding values, norms and rules are affected and laid bare by this process.

© gemeinfrei

Pandemics and conflicts over rules. By historian Matthias Sandberg

Current discussions about precautions and rules for managing the corona pandemic make abundantly clear the disintegrative potential that conflicts over rules have: the fact that individual liberties and personal rights are limited in favour of rational processes of regulation and subordinated to the collective good raises not only explosive political but also complex ethical questions. More

© Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (gemeinfrei)

“... aiuti celesti e humani”: multiple measures to combat the plague in Rome in 1656/57. By art historian Eva-Bettina Krems

The plague broke out in Rome in the spring of 1656. The epidemic had spread from North Africa to Spain and southern France in the mid-17th century, and had already reached Sardinia (then part of the Kingdom of Spain) in 1652. Despite the trade barriers against Sardinia, the plague ravaged Naples four years later, in 1656, where it killed an estimated 100,000 people, about a third of the entire population.  More

© public domain

Seeing through blindness. José Saramago’s novel Blindness (1995). By literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (German Studies)

Saramago’s depressing novel with the Portuguese title Ensaio sobre a cegueira (i.e. Essay on Blindness) tells how a growing number of people in an unnamed town become infected with a mysterious disease that causes them suddenly to go blind. This is a special blindness, one that does not lead the blinded into darkness, but blinds them with glaring whiteness. More

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Keep your distance! Distance and demarcation as forms of protective spatial planning against plague and cholera in Venice, Vienna and Hamburg. By art historian Jens Niebaum

When the plague struck Venice once again in 1423, the Senate decided to set up a new type of hospital to house and care for all infected people from Venice and its islands, a small island off the Lido on which the monastery of Santa Maria di Nazaret was located being chosen as the site; it was from the name of the monastery that the term ‘lazaretto’ developed. More

© Hama Yalcouye

Mali: Contested meanings of “collective interest”. By anthropologist Dorothea Schulz

On 30 November, some Malian newspapers pre-printed the speech that N’Ba Daou, the president of the transitional government in Mali formed after the military coup in August 2020, wanted to use on national television to call on “the Malian people” to abide by a newly imposed night curfew and other accompanying measures to contain the corona epidemic. More