An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perception of Disease

By Jon D. Lee. 2014. Utah State University Press. 220 pages. ISBN: 978-0874219289 (soft cover).

Reviewed by David Lewis, Bowling Green State University

[Review length: 965 words • Review posted on January 14, 2015]

[Cover ofAn Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perception of Disease]

As I write this review, much of the national and global media is in an uproar over the recent Ebola outbreak. Countries in West Africa are closing borders with neighboring countries, international travelers are being quarantined, and US-based news outlets are pondering what the extent of Ebola in the United States will be. John Lee, in his book An Epidemic of Rumors, contends that certain kinds of infectious disease engender specific reactions from both the media and the public: “[P]eople use certain sets of narratives to discuss the presence of illness, mediate their fears of it, come to terms with it, and otherwise incorporate its presence into their daily routines” (169). An Epidemic of Rumors, through an exhaustive exploration of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) panic of 2003, uses concepts from folklore studies to examine some of these narratives and to offer ways to ameliorate their negative effects on public health efforts.

Lee’s introduction notes the similarities between SARS narratives and narratives from other epidemic diseases, while also pointing out the contributions ethnographic research can make to the fields of medicine and public health. The book’s first chapter lays out the differences between the media’s portrayal of SARS and the version presented in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as the British Medical Journal and Lancet, making the case that many rumors and legends around SARS were bolstered by media coverage. It also grounds the reader in the medical timeline of the disease. For each week in the epidemic, Lee gives the reader a synopsis of the reporting from both medical journals and media sources, but the chapter does not cohere into a compelling narrative. By the time I reached week twenty of the epidemic—more than thirty pages into the chapter—it was difficult to adequately process any more information.

In the second chapter Lee begins to examine his corpus of rumor and legend around the SARS epidemic. He draws from Internet-based sources, media representations, and ethnographic interviews with persons who experienced the SARS epidemic in Toronto. His second chapter compares origin stories of SARS and of HIV/AIDS to foreground commonalities between the two while noting the ways the particularities of the SARS epidemic shaped those common stories. In chapter 3, Lee examines how contemporary legends and other folkloric genres that involve public spaces were re-configured in the wake of the SARS epidemic. He traces, for example, how fear of public gathering spaces, xenophobic legends, and the promulgation of stereotypes by the media helped SARS become “inextricably, globally linked with Asians” (103).

In chapters 4 and 5, Lee’s discussion of globalization and stigma is strongest when he discusses their connections to xenophobia during the SARS epidemic. In the chapter dealing with globalization Lee makes the case that, in a global pandemic, rather than using regional or national borders, “lines are instead drawn around those who are unknown or different…so strangers and other ethnicities become the targets of suspicion” (97). Rumor and legend around emerging diseases such as SARS, Lee contends, help to fuel this climate of suspicion. The fifth chapter extends Erving Goffman’s theory of social stigma to include “the infected” and the “potentially discreditable” to fully account for stigmatization of persons who have (or are presumed to have) diseases like SARS and HIV/AIDS. Lee’s analysis, though, also focuses on the ways that those stigmatized used narrative and humor to mediate their own stigmatization.

The sixth chapter explores preventative and curative strategies that appeared early in the SARS epidemic, prefaced by a targeted literature review of writings on folk medicine. Lee’s discussion of SARS in a folk medicine context seeks to explain the many forms of preventative folk medicine that occurred around SARS such as staying indoors, avoiding certain places, and wearing masks. Lee favorably compares the immediacy of folk remedies with the slower pace of what he calls “official medicine” and its search for pharmaceutical cures; these points, though, are brief, and this reader would have appreciated a lengthier discussion, particularly in light of the murkiness in distinguishing folk remedies from “official” medicine in the SARS epidemic.

In the following chapter, Lee uses his analysis of SARS in the preceding chapters to briefly analyze myth, legend, and rumor around the 2009 appearance of H1N1 or “bird flu,” on the global stage. The H1N1 chapter, like the second chapter that compares origin stories of AIDS and SARS, makes a compelling case that the folkloric genres that Lee examines throughout the text occur across a range of diseases and are not specific to SARS.

Lee’s conclusion tackles strategies for combating rumor and legend that have proved harmful in previous epidemics, most notably using the media to provide accurate information rather than discussing rumor and legend, even to disprove or debunk it. His discussion of practical, workable solutions for the problems posed by rumor make this book quite valuable for public health researchers, who have not approached folkloric forms in such a considered, ethnographic manner. One of the great strengths of Lee’s work is that it views rumor, legend, and other forms as meaning-laden and indicative of larger social and cultural beliefs rather than as stories that simply need to be corrected, as is often the case in medical research.

As I watched the recent Ebola outbreak unfold and had discussions with friends and colleagues about air travel, immigration, media coverage, and relative safety of public spaces, I couldn’t help but reflect upon Lee’s discussion of these same issues in this volume. While the chapters can be uneven and far too brief—I often wished for lengthier discussion of issues that Lee mentions only glancingly—many of his larger arguments will prove useful to folklorists and ethnographers working at the borders of “folk” and “official” medicine as well as to public health experts planning interventions for current and emerging global diseases.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.