Dr. Huiling Ding on the Rhetoric of Epidemics

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. Today I’m interviewing Dr. Huiling Ding, an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication and Rhetoric and North Carolina State University. She’ll be talking with us about her new book Rhetoric of a Global Epidemic: Transcultural Communication about SARS.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome Dr. Ding. What can we learn from a rhetorical analysis of the transcultural rhetorics surrounding the SARS epidemic?

[Huiling Ding] Right, I think that’s a really-one of the overarching questions I asked too when I started the project because I focused more on the transcultural rhetoric. So, when you think about the global flow of people, of media discourses of ideas, in addition to the global flow of people and viruses, and then how this global flows may cause disjunctures because other negotiations and then controversies surrounding around the topics. So rhetorical analysis offers a very powerful tool to understand how we actually, rhetorically construct, or socially construct academic at various levels. So, for instance, we have institutional discusses, mass media discusses, and then professional discusses from public health officials and then communities affected by SARS, and communities threatened with the invasion of SARS. Like in the United States right, we didn’t have too many cases here; we felt the threat coming with international travelers, international students, and global travelers. The rhetorical analysis basically offers you the tool to look at the ecology. You know we have the concept of rhetorical ecologist, modern level interaction of stakeholders, writers, and different power structures. Not only among countries but also within the countries at different levels, institutional and communal levels, but I think because of the rhetorical lens that we can use, it offers us a more interactive analysis surrounding the SARS epidemic. How do we talk about epidemic in general right? Okay because there will be competing narratives. The World Health Organization for instance, I am now working on a second book project on the quarantine discourses.

[Weber] Oh okay.

[Ding] And I’m now starting in Canada, right? So the World Health Organization would say, well, “April 23, 2003, well Toronto should be listed in the travel advisors,” health advises an ongoing epidemic in the city. And then the U.S. city, come in and say, “Well Toronto is safe.” (chuckle) Right and then Toronto, the city and the federal government, they send officials to negotiate WHO, so we see this global negotiation of risks, like risk definition, risk control approaches going on at that time, both at institutional level and a lot of traumatic moments in mass media as well. And then the communal responses from Toronto, basically “We lost so much business because of WHO advisory, so your communication had better help us to get us off the travel advisory.”

[Weber] Yeah.

[Ding] So a lot of the political trouble I think has been played out at the institutional, and media, and community levels, and I think without the rhetorical lens, it’s quite difficult to track all the players going on at the same time right, and then how each one of them plays some role in the negotiation processes.

[Weber] Yep, that’s a very interesting example, the Toronto example, how did alternative media and informal risk communication play a role in the rhetoric of the SARS epidemic?

[Ding] That’s one of the very interesting things, it’s almost like I was looking more at the institutional discourse and then I found all those noises in the data that I explored. So, I find that at the very beginning of the SARS epidemic in southern China, in Guanche province, there was a massive wave of panic buying. Basically, people all rushed, everyone rushed to the stores to grab water, cooking oil, rice, and everything because of the text messaging that was going out at that time. So basically, a lot of rumors were sent out. Actually, finding medical workers who were worried. Yeah, they saw their colleagues infected by what’s called index cases of SARS, who were infecting sixty to one hundred people at a time, and they knew nothing about the disease, and they had no cure, and they saw the patients dying very quickly. So, they were really concerned, and the hospital reported the cases to the Prevential Public Health Bureau, which then reported to the Health Minister of China, and then there were official auditors basically saying, “Well we don’t know anything at that time so you’d better keep your mouth shut (chuckle) until we’ve found a solution,” right. There were a lot of exchanges of official auditors, notifications, clinical guidelines you know within the public health and clinical institutions but nothing was released to the public. So, the medical workers actually became the whistle blower, the anonymous whistle blower, and they sent messages and used word of mouth to warn their own relatives and friends about it. But you know word of mouth can never be contained right? They first pass the risk messages to their own friends and their friends’ friends, so we suddenly saw this massive wave of text messaging, which basically paralyzed the entire system right after the spring festival ended. So that message panic buying on the province actually became the first warning sign that broke the official silence and it got coverage in Hong Kong media, I think in some western media. And then right at that time, there were a few avian flu cases in Hong Kong, as well as cases in three cases in one family, so there were all those confusion about, “You know what’s going on? Do we have avian flu? Okay, should we do something?” So that became one of the most interesting moments of alternative media and the informal participatory risk communication. And another case which was equally interesting was three Hong Kong IT engineers, young engineers in the early to middle twenties, you know they were very angry about Hong Kong health officials rejection to release any location specific information about SARS cases. So where would we have SARS cases identified right. We should avoid those places, you know something should be done about that?” But the officials refused to do that and then the IT engineers actually created an independent website for their own friends and then for family and friends to say you know which places they should be avoiding. But then it quickly became the central place for everyone to be visiting, they attracted thousands and thousands of visitors in one day and they decided to make the website open to the public and said, “If you see any notification in your building about SARS cases, let us know, send us photos,” and then they would be the building the quality control. They would be calling the public health institutions and then the building management offices to verify that those places indeed had SARS cases, people positing those locations in their own unofficial site. And then one week, I think even less than one week after they started that movement, Hong Kong public health officials actually decided to do the same thing. So, the unofficial, you know grass roots efforts actually helped to push the official risk communication processes. You know a lot of interesting moments and I think we should be paying attention to those moments and see can we do that in future with Ebola if we have any other reporting going on.

[Weber] Well great and that leads to the last question, which is how can health and professional communicators actively participate in and help shape trans-cultural conversations about epidemics? Or that may help people coordinate and work together to contain epidemics?

[Ding] Great question. I think one of the important concepts is in infrastructure, again I’ll go back to the case of Canada. Canada had two waves of SARS, and the first wave of SARS ended in early May when-I mean the epidemic didn’t really disappear. The virus was similar in one of the hospitals at that time, but none of the officials took action and say, “Well we decided we don’t think we have any cases going on here, so the city’s free of SARS and we’ll get rid of all of those precautions. Don’t wear glass, don’t wear masks, don’t wear protective goggles,” stuff like that. And then the clinicians, the hospital workers knew they had suspicious cases going on at that time but then they didn’t have any infrastructure to get the message out and they had no way to basically say, “Look we do have cases and your case definition is wrong,” that’s what I mean when we say civic infrastructure, a way for them to basically say, “We have credible information and you have to take it into consideration.” Also, in quarantines we put people under quarantine, they can’t get out of their home for extended periods of time, usually it’s like ten days, two weeks. If we get quarantined we still have to eat, we still have to function, we still have to buy stuff, so we need community support and we need income from the government. So that’s another layer of infrastructure. How do we work as a community to make sure that people who actually go into quarantines can still have their basic needs covered and can still have their basic rights covered? And for those people in quarantine, most of them didn’t really have SARS, maybe ten percent.

[Weber] Right.

[Ding] But we can’t risk, right, we can’t take the risk ofletting the ten percent getting out, just ninety percent of those people who will be under quarantined wouldn’t have the symptoms. So I think the infrastructures are a very important question to consider for health professional communicators.

[Weber] Excellent. Well thank you so much I really appreciate your insight. It’s a very fascinating project. Thank you so much.

[Ding] Thank you for the great questions too.

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