Cover of Infectious Change by Katherine A. Mason
Infectious Change
Reinventing Chinese Public Health After an Epidemic
Katherine A. Mason


272 pages.
from $24.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9780804794435
Paperback ISBN: 9780804798921
Ebook ISBN: 9780804798952

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Winner of the 2019 Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness Book Prize, sponsored by the British Sociological Association.

In February 2003, a Chinese physician crossed the border between mainland China and Hong Kong, spreading Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)—a novel flu-like virus—to over a dozen international hotel guests. SARS went on to kill about 800 people and sicken 8,000 worldwide. By the time it disappeared in July 2003 the Chinese public health system, once famous for its grassroots, low-technology approach, was transformed into a globally-oriented, research-based, scientific endeavor.

In Infectious Change, Katherine A. Mason investigates local Chinese public health institutions in Southeastern China, examining how the outbreak of SARS re-imagined public health as a professionalized, biomedicalized, and technological machine—one that frequently failed to serve the Chinese people. Mason grapples with how public health in China was reinvented into a prestigious profession in which global recognition took precedent over service to vulnerable local communities. This book lays bare the common elements of a global pandemic that too often get overlooked, all of which are being thrown into sharp relief during the present COVID-19 outbreak: blame of "exotic" customs from the country of origin and the poor bearing the most severe consequences. Mason's argument resonates profoundly with our current crisis, making the case that we can only consider ourselves truly prepared for the next crisis once public health policies, and social welfare more generally, are made more inclusive.

About the author

Katherine A. Mason is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

"In this defining ethnography of China's public health system and its complex relation to epidemics, Katherine Mason brilliantly describes health professionals, their struggles to be effective and ethical, the barriers they face, and how they animate the Chinese public health system as a lived reality. Infectious Change is an impressive contribution to both China studies and to medical anthropology!"

—Arthur Kleinman, Director, Harvard Asia Center

"Meticulously crafted, Infectious Change draws readers into the world of Chinese public health after SARS. Mason documents fundamentally different approaches to epidemic control among global, state, and local practitioners, including management of migratory populations, data collection, and ethics, arguing that global directives often stymie local efforts. This book elucidates why epidemic prevention everywhere must draw on local knowledge and practices."

—Margaret Lock, author of The Alzheimer Conundrum

"Katherine Mason's book is an important contribution to the fields of Chinese studies and anthropology, joining a recent spate of excellent studies using the methods of anthropology to look at the intersections of public health, cultural practices and politics in China...Mason's book reminds us that implementing public health policy is never only about what is technically correct. It is about the cultural values and practices that govern relationships. It is also about understanding the power dynamics of the political system and generating the political will to construct an enabling environment and accountability mechanism to achieve it. In China, the tensions between centre and local are rarely resolved in favour of local and when new criteria for professional advancement are introduced, it results in the type of dysfunction so masterfully described by Mason."

—Joan Kaufman, China Quarterly

"This is an excellent, thought-provoking book, which will appeal to those with interests in contemporary China, medical anthropology, and histories of health and disease. It yields insights that will illuminate broader debates, such as those that pivot on the challenges inherent in promoting the "global" as a category in health."

—Robert Peckham, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Infectious Change brings us for the first time before a hitherto unacknowledged consequence of the 2009 H1N1 crisis, and, at that, in one of the most epidemiologically critical regions of the globe today. It is this invaluable insight that should hold the attention not only of medical anthropologists but also of the wider global health community."

—Christos Lynteris, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

"In Infectious Change, Katherine A. Mason provides a captivating analysis of public health in China in the wake of SARS...Infectious Change is an insightful work that would be of interest to scholars of China and global health practitioners while also being accessible to a general academic reader. For China scholars, Mason makes a major contribution to the literature on public health."

—Emilio Dirlikov, Anthropological Quarterly

"Infectious Change presents a rich ethnographic account of how the Tianmai CDC works, how it would like to transform itself, and the barriers to doing so. It will make an excellent addition to courses on the anthropology of China or of global health because of the clarity of its ethnographic account and also because of the questions it opens up."––Elanah Uretsky, Asian Medicin