Early warnings and slow deaths: A sociology of outbreak and overdose


Early warnings and slow deaths: A sociology of outbreak and overdose

8 June 2023
Tim Rhodes
Kari Lancaster


In this paper, we offer a sociological analysis of early warning and outbreak in the field of drug policy, focusing on opioid overdose. We trace how ‘outbreak’ is enacted as a rupturing event which enables rapid reflex responses of precautionary control, based largely on short-term and proximal early warning indicators. We make the case for an alternative view of early warning and outbreak. We argue that practices of detection and projection that help to materialise drug-related outbreaks are too focused on the proximal and short-term. Engaging with epidemiological and sociological work investigating epidemics of opioid overdose, we show how the short-termism and rapid reflex response of outbreak fails to appreciate the slow violent pasts of epidemics indicative of an ongoing need and care for structural and societal change. Accordingly, we gather together ideas of ‘slow emergency’ (Ben Anderson), ‘slow death’ (Lauren Berlant) and ‘slow violence’ (Rob Nixon), to re-assemble outbreaks in ‘long view’. This locates opioid overdose in long-term attritional processes of deindustrialisation, pharmaceuticalisation, and other forms of structural violence, including the criminalisation and problematisation of people who use drugs. Outbreaks evolve in relation to their slow violent pasts. To ignore this can perpetuate harm. Attending to the social conditions that create the possibilities for outbreak invites early warning that goes ‘beyond outbreak’ and ‘beyond epidemic’ as generally configured.

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