Dr. Kari Nixon's areas of expertise — medical humanities and contagious diseases — have suddenly become very relevant as the world watches the coronavirus circle the globe. Her first book, titled Kept from All Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact, is due out this spring. And last week, she published an opinion piece on CNN's website in which she argues that the way we discuss the coronavirus can actually impact the way it spreads.
Our interview with Nixon has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
INLANDER: As you've watched the coronavirus outbreak unfold in America, what has surprised you?
NIXON: My first gut instinct was to say nothing. ... [But] I can tend to be a little bit pessimistic about people's ability to take themselves out of the moment of crisis and rise above it and think beyond their individual needs and concerns. And I think in an individualistic society like America, that is how we tend to think — we will watch out for No. 1 — and I have been pretty impressed by the way the journalists I've worked with at every level have been really ethically committed to promoting non-hysteria-inducing, rational, even-handed pieces. And I've seen people on Twitter and social media instantly calling out and recognizing the xenophobia that came along with the initial outbreak.
In your view, what have officials done well?
I've seen people, including the CDC, put out things about how to handle anxiety about the coronavirus. And to me that shows a really progressive-minded care for holistic health. That goes back to what I think about the world from the book I wrote — that when we're only trying to preserve, say, a beating heart, we may be overlooking the other aspects of a lived life that make life meaningful, such as relationships and community fulfillment. And so to see health organizations taking care of that part of society was really meaningful to me.
You've suggested in your work that the way we talk about infectious diseases is important. Why is that? How does this kind of so-called "outbreak narrative" come to bear on the real world?
In my CNN piece, I quoted Priscilla Wald, who's written a whole book about the fact that we pretty much always say that diseases come from Asia and Africa as their origin point. And she again doesn't say necessarily that the science is incorrect or correct. She just says, "I don't know. We might want to examine the fact that it's a little convenient that that's always what our science finds."
And what I've talked about in my piece was something I am starting to call "social spillover," which is when we believe that a disease is going to stay in this other community, and that it's not a danger to us, and that that, in fact, lets the disease grow and fester and spread in one reservoir and then be able to spill over into the very populations that were thinking it couldn't affect them. The most famous modern example of that would have been HIV. The more people initially thought, "Well, this is a disease of homosexuality," the more it was able to in fact spread among heterosexuals.
You've suggested that people shouldn't freak out or put their heads in the sand when it comes to coronavirus. In your view, what's a healthy way to look at a threat like this?
Yeah, I had to address this in my book because, you know, when I'm saying something like a life lived without risk isn't any kind of life, the knee-jerk reaction of readers was going to be like, "Well, but I don't want tuberculosis." And so what I say in my intro, and I feel the exact same way about coronavirus is: Of course, this doesn't mean that you're going to try to go get any pathogen. ... But instead to be aware that we do live with risk, every day, no matter what. We just like to pretend we don't.
The way I talk to my students about it is every day we could die in a car accident. We can't go around thinking like that, or we'd probably just never leave our houses. So we kind of, in order to get by with our daily tasks, ignore the fact that there's risk all around us. And in a paradoxical way, if we could just accept that and accept, in this case, we don't have 100 percent control of what bacteria and viruses get into our bodies 100 percent of the time.
It's actually shown in cognitive behavioral therapy that that's sort of the place you have to get to to let go of any anxiety. Any anxiety is about the belief of control, that by worrying about it or doing something about it, you somehow can control the risks that you perceive will happen. ♦