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Friday, May 02, 2003

The news coming out of

The news coming out of China about the SARS epidemic and the Chinese government's more and more draconian methods of dealing with the spread of the disease, as well as the society's reaction to the mysterious virus, brought to mind a fastinating book I read a while back. Jose Saramago's Blindness.

In the book, a city was under seige by an epidemic of blindness. No one knew how it started or how it spreaded, yet the only certainty was that it was indeed contagious. As more and more people became afflicted society's reaction became more drastic. A large group of the newly blinded were quarantined in a mental hospital, and it was all down hill from there.

The book deals with both the social and cognitive effects of the affliction. On the cognitive level, Saramago recounts the ways in which those afflicted must relearn, or remediate as we say in my field, their ways in the world. The lone naturally blind man, erroneously thrown into quarantine with the afflicted, became King of this new world order because he was the only one who could cognitively navigate the dark world.

On the social level, the book highlights how our very own actions are restricted by the believe that there is such things as rules and expected behavior, and what happens when the ever so fragile fabric of our civilized society breaks down. In other words, so much of our reaction to things depends on our ability to predict or expect how others react---and everything goes hay wired when our expectations are no longer met.

Seeing what happened in Baghdad in the days following the fall of the Saddam regime and the reaction of the Chinese to the new amorphous threat of SARS reminded me of the scenes that Saramago aptly described in the book. Read it and tell me what you think.

The book, incidentally, is on the UK Guardian's list of top 100 books list.

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