Author: Mahra Al Suwaidi

Iron Lungs


In Roth’s Nemesis (2010), we have come across the term “iron lungs” which some of the characters in the novel had to use when they contracted polio. It has been stated that there is no other device more associated with polio than an iron lung, or a tank respirator. Physicians that treated people who were at the early stages of polio found that they had trouble breathing because the virus paralyzed the muscle groups in their chest. At this stage, death is frequent. Although, those who survived recovered almost all of their strength.


What powered the iron lung was an electric motor with two vacuum cleaners. The pump would change the pressure inside the “rectangular, airtight metal box” which would pull air in and out of the lungs. Breathing on one’s own usually happened one or two weeks later.


Nothing worked well in trying to help people breath until Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University, in 1927, invented a version of an iron lung that helped to maintain respiration artificially until the person could breathe independently. An inventor called John Emerson later refined the device where a patient would lay on a bed (called a “cookie tray”) and could slide in and out of the cylinder when needed. The tank also had windows so that attendants can reach and adjust sheets, limbs etc. Emerson tested it by spending the night in it and it was first used in Rhode Island to save the life of a priest who had polio.

Fun Facts:

Mass distribution of iron lungs happened in 1939. In the 1930s, an iron lung cost around $1,500 which was the average price of a home. During this time, Drinker took Emerson to court and said that he “had infringed on patent rights by altering [his] iron lung design.” However, “Emerson defended himself by making the case that such lifesaving devices should be freely available to all.” In 1959, there were 1,200 patients using tank respirators in the United States, but in 2004, there were only 39 due to the polio vaccine.

Hope you enjoyed these facts!

Thanks & Regards

Mahra Al Suwaidi



‘Nightmare’ of Ding Village

Set in an imaginary village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village (2006) by Yan Lianke is a story about rural Chinese citizens who lived through China’s Plasma Economy. It reveals the sufferings that arose from this profit-seeking campaign. The novel invites us to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, the time when farmers, or the villagers of Ding, awoke from dreams of wealth and prosperity to a fatal disease, their “dream” for a better life turned into a nightmare.

Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old boy and the narrator of the novel, is the son of Ding Hui, who was the village’s most scandalous bloodhead. The boy was poisoned by the villagers in retaliation for his father’s doings, which was setting up Ding’s largest and unhygienic blood bank that eventually caused the spread of AIDS, while using the profit to improve his family’s house. In other words, he got what he ‘paid’ for and his son died for him. Once again, a son is punished for his father’s sins, does this sound familiar? After Ding Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as an observer watching over his father and grandfather. His omniscient narration gives us an insight on the daily life of the infected Ding Village and serves to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for the sick villagers while carrying the shame of his son’s actions. Even though the grandfather dreamt that this would lead to a disaster, he still persuaded people to do it, obeying the request of the “higher-ups.” Who do you think is to blame for the blood selling? Does the dream aspect of the novel remind you of a story we have read?

The father’s greed has caused tragedies upon Ding’s villagers; it had ‘cost’ people their lives. The blood business has become very competitive to the extent that he put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it around the village to collect blood. The blood selling business was booming and it seemed as though it became something sacred to them. The villagers “didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more; they believed in selling blood” and they sold it religiously (24). People seemed to be convinced that this trade will bring them more prosperity than religion. Selling blood became an ‘addiction’ and people’s veins started to feel like they will burst if they did not extract any blood. Once someone began to sell their blood, there was no coming back. They could not escape it just like they could not escape the fate that was coming their way (i.e. AIDS). The villagers have become so absurd that they were easily persuaded to sell their blood, even by the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and the other officials, particularly the former Mayor Li Sanren who absolutely condemned the campaign at first. Moreover, those who were against the idea at first had no other choice but to sell their blood as well due to social pressure. They were forced to give away part of themselves to be able to afford living in the village and feed themselves to survive. Little did they know, however, they were killing part of themselves by doing so. Why was instant gratification worth risking one’s life in this case? Whose fault is it that people had to resort to selling ‘part of themselves’ to make money? Is it an ethical way of dealing with loss of money (on the part of the government and on the part of the villagers)?

Bloodheads were getting out of control; they were demanding blood to the extent that they were bribing the villagers with words. They were like mad vampires, except they were able to walk in daylight. Ding Hui was the most manipulative bloodhead of all; he knew how to persuade the villagers to stretch out their arms to him and he made them think that when they get the money and live in comfortable conditions, that will, in turn, ‘stretch’ out their lives. A particular scene that shows how his bribery worked is when he convinced the resistant Li Sanren, the former mayor, to do just that:

While pushing his mobile blood bank round the village, Ding Hui saw Li Sanren working his field and asked him if he wanted to sell blood. Li Sanren angrily replied: “You Dings, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve milked this village dry.” Ding Hui, not wanting to lose a customer turns to Li Sanren, calling him “Mr. Mayor” which he knew was a strong way of getting him to listen, starts talking about the county cadres’ search for a new mayor. He then tells him that they had offered him the job but then exclaims: “Of course I’d never take the job, I told them there’s only one person in this village qualified to be mayor, and that’s you (87).

How effective is propaganda / manipulation in this situation? Those who benefitted financially from this scandal, such as Ding Hui, viewed this AIDS crisis as a good opportunity for making money. However, before the epidemic, when blood selling earned you money to live comfortably, everyone was happy about it. Only when the consequences of their decisions came, people started complaining. Do you think the people “asked for it?” Do they have the right to complain? Who is to blame for the start of the epidemic after all? Although it was the government who encouraged the trade at first, when people saw how beneficial this transaction was to their lives, they were willing to continue and sell more frequently each time.

Because doctors used unsanitary equipment for the procedures to lower costs and maximize profit, it was as though they were treating humans like production machines by disregarding their health and safety. The poor villagers were like slaves; the “higher-ups” were ‘buying’ their lives and benefitting from them, and then they left them to die. Would you consider this objectification? The villagers seemed to be even less than objects as they were treated with indifference and money was seen as more valuable than people. It is as though the father and the other bloodheads exemplified lack of empathy which is one of the characteristics of an ‘authoritarian personality.’

In addition to manipulation, indifference, instant gratification and ethics, other prominent underlying themes in this novel are power and pride. Ding Hui was a powerful man in Ding Village and he used his house as a reflection of this power. For instance, he refused to have a house on the same level as the other villagers: “When everyone else started building bricks-and-tile houses, my father [Ding Hui] tore down ours and built a new two-storey house. When everyone started building two-storey houses, my father added a third storey” (19-20). The people of Ding village were materialistic and used wealth to reflect their position in society. This is why Ding Hui bought all the unused machinery in the house, just to “show we could afford them.” (20). When the father was asked to apologize to the people for what he had done, his pride got in the way and, as a result, he said: “You’re not my father and I am not your son” (22). What do you make out of this situation? Do you believe that this reply was a consequence of the father’s powerful position? What do you think would have been his reply had he not been wealthy? Do you think that apologizing hinders one’s position or lifts it? What does Ding Hui think?

The theme of power also reoccurs when the county director visits the grandfather in school. The grandfather is asked to use his powerful and respectful position in the village to mobilize the selling of blood. The grandfather is in complete disapproval of the phenomena at first. However, due to the powerful position of the county director and the fact that he used his position to allow the grandfather to be nominated as a model teacher, he agreed to promote selling blood in the village. In the end, however, the grandfather becomes the caretaker of the sick villagers instead of the model teacher. This could be seen as the cost of choosing to obey the authority’s instructions in order for him to be raised to a better position (“You reap what you sow” [32]). Nevertheless, his efforts to help the sick at the school was done voluntarily out of compassion, restoring the humanity that was lost from the way the bloodheads treated the villagers. Do you believe what the grandfather did was morally justified (i.e. obeying authority to raise his position in society)? Is obeying authoritative figures more beneficial to the community than staying true to one’s self and moral standards?

The grandfather’s character reminds us of the doctor’s wife in the movie Blindness (2008) who did not catch the disease and remained in the asylum to take care of the sick. Both were willing to risk their lives and stay with the diseased to support them in their last days even with the idea that there was no cure (which the people did not know at the beginning of their stay in the school). Does risking one’s health, by any chance, remind you of Arthur Mervyn (1799)? Moreover, does the idea of secrecy and telling people there is a cure for AIDS (in the beginning) remind you of Dr. Rieux from The Plague (1947)? Another striking similarity to the movie Blindness is when the infected population created their own organized society in which the healthy held the role of the leader. Although the people did not get along at first and everyone was frustrated with their fate, they were forced to accept this destiny and work together for a better end to their lives. As we have seen in our previous readings as well, disease brings people together just like a celebration (shared feelings; the aim of ‘making most of today’). People collectively want to forget and that, as a result, intensifies their bonds. This is similar to Emily Davis’s quote from Priscilla Wald’s book: “The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community.” Can you draw a connection to Camus’s The Plague (1947) or Pushkin’s A Feast During The Plague (1830)?

Lastly, in order to understand the bigger picture of the way Ding Village’s society works as a whole, we found it necessary to examine the major setting of the plot: the village school. Prior to the epidemic and the rise of the phenomena of selling blood, this place used to be “part of a village temple dedicated to Guan Yu, the god of wealth” (24). From this explanation alone, we can come to a conclusion about life during this period in Ding Village. It is safe to say that people were humbled and religious, and were also filled with hope that one day, they would have their share of wealth. Following this period, the action of blood selling was introduced in the village and that is when “they [the villagers] started getting rich from selling blood, [that] they tore down the temple” (24). The change brought by selling blood to this society was massive. The religious beliefs of this society collapsed as they found praying for wealth useless when compared to selling blood. During this period, the people of Ding Village found that the best use for this physical space is education which is when the school was built. Years after the school was built, the AIDS epidemic started, which is when this place took on a different role in benefiting the society; it served as a safe haven for those who suffered from AIDS.

This selfless act proposed by the grandfather has helped re-establish some of the values this place had prior to being a school; the values of giving without expecting anything in return. It once again became a symbol of hope, but a completely different type of hope. People no longer hoped for wealth and were no longer materialistic. Instead, they hoped for the recovery of their loved ones; they hoped to go back to the time before they sold their own blood for the sake of money; they hoped to restore the humanity in this society that seemed to have died the moment they extended their arms for a few yuans.

Happy reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali

AIDS & Word Choice


                Word choice is an important part of our class, Contagion, and understanding what a word means is essential when understanding an actual illness, whether we are thinking about its denotation or connotation.

                In class, we touched upon the difference between the word “disease” and “syndrome.” In Act 1 Scene 9 (Page 44), Henry, the doctor, explains to Roy his condition (AIDS) and when Roy calls it a “disease,” Henry corrects him by saying that it is a “syndrome.” This stirred up confusion as some people, like myself, thought that AIDS is an illness that simply kills people over time. However, AIDS is a condition that weakens people’s immune system and makes them vulnerable to other diseases. Put simply, “a person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infections.” In fact, AIDS stands for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS was “first identified in the early 1980s” and the novel, Angels in America, was published in 1992 which explains why some people did not know how or what to call it.

               Here is more information about the syndrome. AIDS is caused by HIV, which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and it is a virus that attacks one’s immune system cells. When it damages these cells, the body becomes susceptible and it cannot fight off other infections. When this is left untreated, “it can take around ten years before HIV has damaged the immune system enough for AIDS to develop.” Here is a short clip explaining the process (

               HIV is found in the sexual fluids of an infected person, their blood, or in the breast milk of a woman. HIV gets transmitted when an adequate quantity of these types of fluids get into another person’s bloodstream. Here are some ways people can get infected with HIV: “Unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person…Contact with an infected person’s blood…Use of infected blood products: Many people in the past have been infected with HIV by the use of blood transfusions and blood products which were contaminated with the virus. In much of the world this is no longer a significant risk, as blood donations are routinely tested for HIV. Injecting drugs: HIV can be passed on when injecting equipment that has been used by an infected person is then used by someone else…From mother to child: HIV can be transmitted from an infected woman to her baby during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding.”

               What is worrying is that “many people think there is a ‘cure’ for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS – which perhaps makes them take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t.” There is no cure for HIV but there are ways in which one can prevent it. Still, Antiretroviral Treatment can prolong the lives of those living with HIV and, fortunately, “someone with HIV who is taking treatment could live for the rest of their life without developing AIDS.”

Thank you for reading.


Mahra Al Suwaidi



Did you say “Plague”?!

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus is narrated by an anonymous character who declares that the purpose of his narration is to provide an objective account of a historical event, the arrival of the plague in Oran. One prominent theme present in this novel is indifference and denial of the plague by not just the general public, but also the doctors and the state. In addition to indifference and denial, we will also look at the ways in which people respond to the epidemic. The main question we will ask is: is it ethical (for anyone, let alone a state) to keep quiet from a disease that could potentially spread and kill millions? Is people’s indifference caused by the limited amount of information they have about the contagious disease? Should people be blamed for acting this way and for spreading a disease that they may not know existed? Whose fault is it in the end?

Before we begin, it is necessary to provide a little context which will help explain why people acted the way they did in the story. Oran is an “ugly” town with people who are mainly concerned about maximizing profit and business. Every day, they follow the same boring habitual routine, which consists of work, cinema, dining and trivial love affairs. The narrator describes Oran as a busy town where people are always occupied with activities that require good health and thus, illness is not the “norm” and the very few who become ill are unnoticeable. One important aspect of the town is that the citizens are “humanists: they did not believe in pestilence” (30). He calls Oran “a dry place” both physically (due to the horrible climate) and, most importantly, spiritually, meaning the “dryness” of its people, i.e. their lack of emotional concern about others.

The story starts with the unusual discoveries of dead rats covered in blood around the town both indoors and outdoors. The townspeople “had never thought that [their] little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses. From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas” [emphasis added] (20). For instance, a “boy was very excited by the business of the rats” but his father said, “we don’t talk about rats at table…From now on, I forbid you to mention the word” (24). Moreover, Castel, Dr. Rieux’s colleague mentioned that he has encountered something fairly similar to a situation of an epidemic in Paris but “no one dared put a name on it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic” (29). Do you think that because these people are stuck in their own paradigm, i.e. being optimistic or fatalistic (24), makes them deny the seriousness of this disease (note when Dr. Rieux started to contemplate: “He could not imagine how such obsessions fitted into the context of the plague, and so concluded that, in practical terms, the plague had no future among the people of our town” [37])? Do tradition and social pressure play a role in the spread of a disease?

The Plague is an account that provides a description of the various ways people react and respond to an epidemic. It is evident how the idea of denial, or at least indifference, is present throughout the book. In the beginning, Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a succumbed rat on the ground in his building but does not give much thought to it, only after the number of dead rats increased day by day. The public begins to feel anxious due to the rapid growth of the dead rats but little action is being taken to solve the problem. No one seems to want to deviate their attention from themselves and their reclusive routines to deal with the situation. Moreover, when Rieux meets his mother and tells her about the rats, she was “not surprised” and said that “things like that happen” (13). In addition, when the priest mentions that “it must be an epidemic,” there was a complete shift in scene and no attention or concern was given to what was said (16).

Furthermore, some people have acknowledged that this disease is “fatal” but they cannot bring themselves to explain that it is potentially a “plague” (25) and “the press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent” (29). In fact, doctors who are only aware of two or three cases did not think it was necessary to do anything (29). Dr. Rieux also predicts that the government will keep silent as well. We can also see how Dr. Richard chooses to “not give away to panic”; how him and some of his colleagues mentioned that it was dangerous to jump to conclusions in science; and how the Prefect chooses to keep quiet about the disease (38). Only later did the Prefect take some preventive measures.

On the other hand, Dr. Rieux says that “perhaps we should make up our minds to call this disease by its proper name” (34). He mentions that when a microbe is capable of increasing, “that is precisely when we should rush to do something…If the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months” (39) and “if we don’t acknowledge it…it still threatens to kill half the population of the town” (40). Do you think that because the state kept quiet about the disease (the papers do mention the rats with no reference to a disease), that this could have contributed to the spread of the plague? From the examples above, it is plausible to think that the more one keeps quiet about a disease, the more likely the disease will spread because people will not take safety precautions since they have no knowledge a plague exists. Do you think the state and the doctors kept quiet so that they would not occupy people’s minds with the possibility of the disease as the distress and acknowledgment could make them susceptible to the plague? As in, not scaring them with “unnecessary” information that could contribute to their overall well-being?

Thus, we can see that during an epidemic, the narrator believes that not only is the disease contagious but also the way people react to it or rather how they react to the authority’s procedures: “once the gates were closed….a quite individual feeling such as being separated from a loved one suddenly became, in the very first weeks, a feeling of a whole people” (53). What is the reason behind this “contagious feeling” of fear between the people of Oran? Is it because they do not trust, or they are beginning not to trust, the administration? Is it because the people of Oran are thinking on an individual basis rather than a collective one, i.e. thinking of the greater good for them and the outside world?

The plague has changed the way people react in their day to day life. There is a very interesting relationship change between individuals during an epidemic. It is even more fascinating in our case given the previous description of the town of Oran. When the city gates were open for people who already left before the time of the epidemic and wished to be reunited with their loved ones, the city saw “only one case where human feelings proved stronger than horrible death” (55). One might expect that since the people of Oran were so disconnected from one another, the silver lining of the plague may be the rebirth of a sense of unity and belonging to the people of Oran. Still, it seems that people did prioritize their own health over their unification with their loved ones. Are they to be blamed? Did this disconnect happen to avoid empathy, or is it because they cared only for their well-being?  

As an endnote, we would like to link this to one of our previous readings: The Plague relates to Pushkin’s piece A Feast During the Plague (1830). In this play, the revelers choose to isolate themselves from the raging epidemic and continue living their lives normally, as if there was nothing going on that concerns them. They could have also been in a state of denial, just like the people of Oran, where they did not want to drown themselves in the sufferings of others. As we learn from the narrator’s descriptions, most of the people in Oran are obsessed with maintaining their “peace of mind” and this caused their indifference to traumas such as the plague. Is Walsingham perhaps similarly indifferent or in denial like the people of Oran by calling for a celebration? What about the rest of the revelers? In fact, can their feast that was organized as a society possibly represent a place like Oran and its reaction to this epidemic?

Happy Reading,

Mahra, Aysha, and Ali



Late Stages of Neurosyphilis

Dear all,

               I wanted to clarify Oswald’s condition in Ghosts (1881) by Henrik Ibsen as it was not explicitly stated in the play. I also included a few questions for thought at the end.

               Oswald Alving is suffering from Neurosyphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, which is an infection of either the brain or the spinal cord. This usually occurs with people who have had untreated syphilis for years. This is plausible because Oswald had been sent away from his family for years and, as a result, his parents wouldn’t have known otherwise. Moreover, Oswald seemed to be in denial of his condition for quite some time and only at the very end of the play did he reveal his condition to his mother.

               The symptoms of Neurosyphilis that match up to Oswald’s behavior are listed below. Although, it is necessary to mention that our knowledge is limited because most of the play consists of dialogue. The symptoms are as follows: dementia (loss of brain function which affects one’s thinking, language, memory, behavior, and judgment), depression, headaches, irritability, poor concentration, and weakness. There can also be no symptoms which could have been why Oswald did not mention it to his parents because he wouldn’t have noticed it in the earlier stages. These symptoms can slowly get worse which was evident with Oswald throughout the play. At the beginning, there were no signs of his condition but, gradually, we saw him in distress. This is especially evident when he was asking his mother to be by his side and the words he was uttering (“The sun….The sun” – Page 164) at the end of the play when he sounded like he had permanent brain damage.

               Do you think that if Oswald’s mother, Mrs. Alving, had told him about his father’s condition (as he also had the same condition), then Oswald could have taken safety precautions and gotten suitable health care? If Mrs. Alving knew about her son’s condition but was in denial of his strange behavior (and maybe justifying it by the fact that Oswald is not attached to her as a mother since he was away for so long), could she have had the impression that this disease was a punishment from God for the sins of his father and that is why it wouldn’t make a difference if she was silent? Does public opinion come into play in this scenario?

Thank you for reading,

Mahra Al Suwaidi