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Book Review: Against COVID backdrop, Adam Kucharski's Rules of Contagion tells us how things spread

The title might lead readers to imagine that this book is about the COVID-19 pandemic but it has a broader canvas.

December 27, 2020 / 12:51 PM IST
The changes upend the plans of millions of people who were looking forward to gathering with family and friends next week and force scores to revise their travel plans at the last minute. (Image: AP)

The changes upend the plans of millions of people who were looking forward to gathering with family and friends next week and force scores to revise their travel plans at the last minute. (Image: AP)


Adam Kucharski’s book The Rules of Contagion (2020), published by Profile Books, is an elegant introduction to the science of how things spread and why they stop. The title might lead readers to imagine that this book is about the COVID-19 pandemic but it has a broader canvas. The author, who teaches at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is interested not only in the outbreak of disease but also in financial contagion, transmission of ideas, and virality of misinformation. He shows how lessons from one field can be applied to another.

When an epidemic is in its early stages, there is a large number of susceptible people out there. However, this pool shrinks over time and the epidemic starts to decline since there are more recoveries than new infections. Similarly, according to Kucharski, when we think about product growth in terms of initial uptake from innovators, followed by early adopters, then the majority of the population, and finally laggards, it becomes harder and harder to meet someone who has not yet heard about the product. Eventually, the number of new adoptions begins to decline.

The author makes a fine comparison between responses to outbreak in public health crises and financial crises. In the context of an epidemic, people try to leave affected areas hoping to avoid getting infected. Given the travel restrictions, and difficulties involved in finding transport, they may not be able to leave. Therefore, they reduce social contact and wash their hands more frequently. Kucharski explores how “the flight response” is also observed in financial crashes when “investors may cut their losses and sell off assets, driving prices even lower.”

Adam Kucharksi_The Rules of Contagion

Dodging situations that could increase the possibility of meeting infected people -- also called “the hide response” -- can help reduce the transmission of disease. However, hiding does not work in quite the same way when the economy is struck by a financial crisis. When banks decide to hoard money, and not lend to other institutions, they can amplify the problem. As Kucharksi rightly mentions, “If the public believes that a bank will go under, they may try to withdraw their money all at once, which would sink even a healthy bank.”

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The author warns us that, just as speculation among traders can bring down firms, the circulation of rumours can also hurt vulnerable communities. The label ‘at-risk’ can lead to segregation and stigma instead of improving access. The ‘them and us’ attitude that Kucharshi brings up while speaking of gay men in the United States -- who were held responsible for the AIDS epidemic -- was also seen in India when Muslims were targeted for being ‘super-spreaders’ in the COVID-19 pandemic after a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi.

He writes, “From HIV/AIDS to Ebola, blame -- and fear of blame -- has pushed many outbreaks out of view. Suspicion around disease can result in many patients and their families being shunned by the local community. This makes people reluctant to report the disease, which in turn amplifies transmission, by making the most important individuals harder to reach.” The blame-game is often intentional, feeding into a well-planned political agenda that aims to exacerbate fear and hostility in contexts where social ties are already fragile.

These power games are played not only in the domestic context but also in international forums as evident from news reportage throughout 2020. Despite the knowledge that international cooperation can benefit humanity at large, governments conceal vital information about the scale of disease transmission by imposing media blackouts and also manipulating official statistics. Controlling the narrative can become more important than saving lives. The author reminds us that blaming certain groups and countries is not as new as it might seem.

Apparently, in sixteenth-century England, it was believed that syphilis had originated in France. It was, therefore, called “the French pox.” Interestingly, the French themselves held that syphilis had come from Naples. They decided to name it “the Neopolitan disease.” The Russians chose to designate it “the Polish disease” whereas the Polish blamed it on Turkey. In Turkey, however, syphilis was believed to be a Christian disease. This is how othering takes place, and enemies are made even today, when the coronavirus is labelled as “the Chinese virus.”

This language can get entrenched through repeated use, and the beliefs it conveys can get transmitted over subsequent generations. An excellent example provided by Kucharski is the influenza pandemic of 1918, “which killed tens of millions of people globally.” It is remembered by historians and in popular culture as “the Spanish flu.” Apparently, media reports of the time gave the impression that Spain was the worst-hit country in Europe, and this perception got solidified because Spain -- unlike Germany, England and France -- imposed no censorship.
On the whole, this is a thoroughly researched book drawing from a range of disciplines. It makes connections that enrich our perspective of how things spread and can be stopped from spreading. While this review cannot include more examples from the wealth of material that Kucharski has assembled, it is worth noting that his grasp of transmission extends from epidemics to suicide clusters, from academic citation networks to social media marketing, and from gun violence to malware outbreaks on the Internet. This book is geek heaven.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)
first published: Dec 26, 2020 08:13 am

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