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Epidemics Have Lost the Plot

Guillaume Lachenal, Gaetan Thomas

This article draws on Charles Rosenberg’s classic essay “What Is an Epidemic?” (1989) to reflect on the complex narrative structures and temporalities of epidemics as they are experienced and storied. We begin with an analysis of Rosenberg’s use of Albert Camus’s The Plague and a discussion of how epidemics have been modeled in literature and in epidemiology concomitantly. Then, we argue that Charles Rosenberg’s characterization of epidemics as events bounded in time that display narrative and epidemiological purity fails to account for the reinvention of life within health crises. Adopting the ecological, archaeological, and anthropological perspectives developed within African studies enriches the range of available plots, roles, and temporal sequences and ultimately transforms our way of depicting epidemics. Instead of events oriented toward their own closure, epidemics might be approached as unsettling, seemingly endless periods during which life has to be recomposed.