“A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out.”

Viruses and diseases can play an important role in maintaining evolutionary order. Although it is difficult to imagine a worldwide epidemic that could thin out the human species, it has already occurred many times in recorded history. Richard Preston first published an article titled “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” which talks about the outbreak of a mutated strain of the Ebola virus that appeared in the U.S in the winter of 1989. Later, he wrote The Hot Zone, which is based on on the article.

The section “The Shadow of Mount Elgon” begins with the description of the history of viruses, and the outbreak of Ebola virus and also the Marburg virus. It first introduces Charles Monet, a Frenchman who lives in Mount Elgon in Western Kenya in 1979. He goes with his lover during winter holiday for a camping trip to the national park in his city and explores Kitum Cave, a tourist site. After the trip to Kitum Cave, Monet develops a headache. Three days later he starts vomiting. He is so very sick that his housekeeper fears he will turn into a zombie. Preston uses personification as a way to describe the disease rather than describing its symptoms in clinical terms. He writes, “Having destroyed its host, the hot agent is now coming out of every orifice, and is ‘trying’ to find a new host.” This helps transform the nonfictional work into a dramatic narrative because the disease is actively engaging in the destruction of Monet’s personality and not just his physical body. Over the course of the book, the author frequently changes narrative point of view. Why is that?

Dr. Shem Musoke tries to treat Monet but Monet’s vomit cause Dr. Musoke to become sick. The virus then spreads out and infects different people. Dr. Musoke was infected because of his concern for his patient, and the workers are also infected because they work in a factory that makes vaccines. They are infected with the virus for their action of aid of others. The act of selflessness is dangerous because diseases spread because of humans’ negligence. Chance plays a significant role in determining how a virus is spread. The virus hits indiscriminately regardless of age, personality, or sex. Although a disease’s spread can be attributed to chance, the outbreak of viruses can also be caused by laziness. Is the disease spreading because of the act of selflessness, chance, or both?

“People performed all kinds of small rituals before they walked through that steel door. Some people crossed themselves. Others carried amulets or charms inside their space suits, even though it was technically against the rules to bring anything inside the suit except your body and the surgical scrubs. They hoped the amulets might help ward off the hot agent if there was a major break in the suit” (74).

Four years after Charles Monet’s death the narrative shifts to a Victorian house in Maryland. Major Nancy Jaax is a married female working in the U.S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease in Biosafety level 4 hot agents. She is working on an Ebola experiment. The narrative perspective here switches to Nancy’s inner monologue. Preston refers to the issue of sexism by showing how Nancy faces discrimination at the institute because of being a woman in the science field. Why didn’t Nancy get infected with the virus? What is Preston trying to say?

Finally, it is ironic that human beings develop viruses just to later develop cures and vaccines for them. We are constantly striving for new technologies even if it means potential annihilation of the human kind. Biological warfare is one of the reasons for that. However, these kinds of warfare can easily backfire since they cannot be controlled. In what ways does technology hinder our growth as human kind? And moreover, what role does greed play in the spread of contagion? Are our governments obliged to control that kind of greed?

– Noora, Odera, Dayin, Nada


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  1. Hey guys! Great work on the final post!!

    ‘Hot Zone’ is one of those books that will definitely land in my ‘interesting-but-unusual’ pile. This novel had more gore than ‘Zone One’,which was a zombie novel!

    Throughout the entire book, I constantly felt like I was reading the virus as a being of its own. I was constantly reminded of the image of an all-powerful overlord, attempting to overrun the earth.

    Then again, the virus could be nature’s way of reclaiming the earth. Are we the viruses? infecting the veins of mother earth? And is Ebola the antibody attempting to heal it? It seem like a frightening proposition,considering that the virus is selective. Who is safe?who isn’t?

    And isn’t it weird that the suits always rip or develop a tear in the hot zone or in the vicinity of the hot agent? We would assume that the military is a little more careful with their equipment.

    Thanks for an amazing first semester guys! Contagion has been my favorite class this semester! Thanks for the amazing class discussions, insights, and friendships!

    Happy reading and good luck for the rest of the semester!


  2. Well written final Conveners post guys!

    When reading Hot Zone, one thing that stood out to me was how the novel dealt with responsibility and blame (a very common theme in the other novels we have read this semester). This novel appears to approach assigning responsibility in a more scientific and rational way than other books, like Nemesis for example. Both Ebola and Polio are described as “mysterious” diseases surrounded by a lot of unknowns. However, blame and responsibility are treated very differently when no one cause is identified. Bucky irrationally takes the responsibility of the spread of Polio upon himself, is filled with misguided guilt, and as a result ruins his own life. In contrast, in Hot Zone responsibility seems to be dealt in a more rational way. As there are so many unknowns, it is impossible to blame the spread of Ebola on a single person.

    Is there a right way to deal with responsibility during times of contagion? Isn’t Bucky’s blame a very natural and human response to death when there unknown factors? Why are people so desperate to find a cause, someone to blame, when there is an outbreak?

    Good luck with finals everyone!

  3. Thank you for all these insightful questions and interpretations!

    The sentence, “A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out.”, stands out in the book as it extols the contribution of the virus and subverts our mindset of viewing the virus as a malicious agent, which is what we often do throughout the semester when it comes to a contagious disease. This reminds me of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution:

    “Natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations. Suppose a member of a species developed a functional advantage (it grew wings and learned to fly). Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species would gradually die out, leaving only the superior (advantaged) members of the species. Natural selection is the preservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete better in the wild. Natural selection is the naturalistic equivalent to domestic breeding. Over the centuries, human breeders have produced dramatic changes in domestic animal populations by selecting individuals to breed. Breeders eliminate undesirable traits gradually over time. Similarly, natural selection eliminates inferior species gradually over time.”
    (Source: http://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com/)

    In this perspective, the epidemic seems to be the process of “natural selection” as well. The plague acts as a process to eliminate people or genes that have more undesirable traits. Those who are not strong enough, or have a feebler immune system will be killed by the virus while those who are stronger survive and pass their “fitter traits” on to the next generation.
    Perhaps, it isn’t the virus that is atrocious, rather, this is how nature works.

    Happy reading and good luck with everything!!

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