When one hears the word epidemic, highly negative connotations arise. Words like fear, widespread, and contagion surface in our minds. These connotations primarily reference the group affected, or soon to be affected, rather than specific individuals facing the illness. An epidemic makes us question the whole and how it will suffer. We do not normally consider the individuals’ losses as they become just a small part of the equation. However, it takes just one individual, one part of the epidemic, to spread the illness exponentially, so how does one not focus on the selective parts of this whole? What happens when we analyze the specific people that are a part of an epidemic?
In the text, Clay’s Ark, by Octavia E. Butler, it is seen that a group of individuals who have ventured out to space had contracted an extraterrestrial disease through the form of a parasitic organism. The symptoms that arose from being infected with the organism drove the individuals who survived to return back to Earth in order to infect others (Butler, 457). Only one infected person survived the attempted crash of the ship, and despite the horrific landing, the organism drove him to survive in ways not humanly possible. This one individual comes into contact with an isolated group of individuals and in turn, they all become infected. The epidemic begins, and with the amount of humanity remaining in those infected, they devise a plan to keep themselves contained. However, even with keeping themselves isolated, they still give in to the organism’s ability to drive them to infect others. They conduct this process in a controlled way, infecting a few individuals at a time to keep reproduction occurring. Those newly infected struggle with the reality of having to remain isolated and a part of the group that spread the disease to them. Before the organism took full reign on the freshly affected individuals, they attempt escape, risking the spread of the illness, but driven to protect their desire to be free.
Upon this situation and plot of the text, I question the difference in emphasis on the individuals’ a part of the whole versus the whole itself. What value should be held to a higher standard? The individuals’ drive for freedom while risking the inevitable spread of an epidemic or the containment of those infected in order to protect the whole? In either instance, something must be sacrificed, and both question morality. One may consider it more ethical for those infected to force themselves into isolation, even if it means suffering from the side effects of the illness and giving up their freedom. In this case, the disease would not spread without external forces as those infected would refrain from any contact with the outside world and eventually pass away. At that point, once they all are deceased, it would be assumed that the disease dies with them, ending any chance of a full-blown epidemic. However, this style of life may come across as meaningless to some, as those isolating themselves sacrifice their freedom to leave isolation and any chance of experiencing the rest of the world. On the other hand, if those infected practice their freedoms and leave their isolated premise, an epidemic is guaranteed to occur, resulting in the harm of many. In this case, those with the disease do not personally face any restrictions as they go about their normal lives, that is, as normal as it can possibly be while being infected. Upon this freedom, they put a much larger whole at risk. This situation does not only apply to this text where a group is infected with an extraterrestrial disease, it can also be relevant in today’s world.
In terms of the medical field, this questioning of personal gain versus protecting the whole can be applied to many of the experiments we have read in our course through the text Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. Throughout the book, researchers take away individuals’ freedom and consent through unethical experimentation to obtain data they believe may help a greater whole. In one experiment, doctors injected a man who they presumed to not make it through the night with plutonium (Washington, 216). They did so without consent, and they hoped to soon autopsy him after the injection in order to learn more about the radioactive substance’s effect on the human body. The man survived, and escaped the hospital upon learning what the doctors had done. His freedom was stripped for the rest of his life as the radioactive substance would never leave his system. To this day, experimentation like this exists, where the individual’s freedom is sacrificed in the belief that it will benefit the greater good. The question posed earlier instills, and I ask you readers, where must sacrifice be made, and how does one overlook the individual’s role in an epidemic?