Friday, February 29, 2008

"Novel" public health ethics

World War Z, billed as "an oral history of the Zombie Wars," is a novel by Max Brooks that purports to tell the history of the global battle against the zombie horde. There are of course a number of horror movies along these lines--among them the gorefest 28 Days Later and its equally horrifying sequel, 28 Weeks Later--and a film version of WWZ is supposedly in the works.

Spoiler alert:
The plan credited in WWZ with saving humanity involves the sacrifice of isolated communities: these unfortunates are left behind, as a distraction for the swarm of zombies, while the rest of the population flees. Once the communities have been completely "zombified," the army moves in mows them down. It's not an especially realistic scenario--or at least, one hopes not! But it does raise some interesting questions about what kinds of measures can, or should, be taken in the case of public health emergencies, and whether we all become utilitarians under such circumstances.

Camus' The Plague is, of course, the classic. Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders is also very good. And I just picked up a copy of The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen, which is another quarantine story, this one set here in the Pacific Northwest. You'll probably get a review of it here one of these days ... when I have time for leisure reading again!

8 comments:

Kelly Hills said...

Oh booo, booooooo! Puns! Boooo!

;)

Yvette said...

"It's not an especially realistic scenario"

Just curious: Why do you think the scenario is not realistic?

An argument can be made that historically this is exactly what happens--the poor, the non-White, and others are routinely sacrificed for experimentation, storage of toxins, written off in economic policy as long as enough others are doing well economically, etc...

Sue Trinidad said...

Kelly--all I can say is, it was late when I drafted it, and it seemed funny to me at the time. Besides, as an old English major, I am required to make at least one bad pun a month. Sorry!

Yvette--I would agree that we (humans in general) have a pretty consistent track record of using marginalized groups in the ways you mention: Native American groups and nuclear dumping sites, for instance, in addition to the classic medical ethics examples like Willowbrook and Tuskeegee. That's why I said what I did about utilitarianism: under extreme pressures, would world leaders around the globe feel justified in making this kind of decision? The fact that the novel raised such questions for me was actually the reason I blogged it.

What I meant by unrealistic (and you might also note that I said I *hoped* it was unrealistic!) is more that it is, after all, a story about flesh-eating zombies taking over the world...

Kelly Hills said...

Sue - I'll grant that it was funny, but for some reason, puns cause actual physical wincing. ...I'll also grant that this never stops me from reading Spider Robinson. ;-)

Sue Trinidad said...

Or, I bet, watching the boys from Monty Python....

Kelly Hills said...

Oddly, Python is a sort of new thing for me - just about most British humour is (if you exclude the humour that slipped in to the magical realists they've been exporting since the 80s). I wasn't raised on it, so it took some time to develop an appreciation, and it's still lopsided. Give me anything with Stephen Fry (right now, actually, please - this whole "resting" while sick thing is sort of frustratingly boring), but something like Absolutely Fabulous is still out of my interests.

That said, my latest "why can't I have more of this NOW?!" is Torchwood/Doctor Who. I have succumbed...

Sue Trinidad said...

yes, well, if you're in the grip of Dr. Who, you are clearly a prisoner of the vortex ... the rest will follow in good time. ;-)

Helen said...

Back on topic here :-)

One of the questions that is being raised about the obesity epidemic is should we treat those who are already obese (and have comorbidities), or should we be targetting on the prevention end and have a "lost genaration".

Now there is a serious flaw in the argument I grant you (after all the obese parents will need support to prevent obesity in their children), but it is an example which is very much reflecting the theme discussed here.

Hey Kelly, nice kitty cat - looks like my big cat ASBO