The Post-Antibiotic Era: An Imaginative Remediation of “The Spread of Superbugs” from The Economist

Jared Godfrey

It could be a beautiful spring day in Madison, Wisconsin. The sun is shining brightly down on the sidewalks, and the Madison lakes have their normal green tinge. There is a nice cool breeze coming off of Lake Mendota, making the newly budding spring trees sway. Despite the simplicity of this scene, there is something wrong—a hidden danger of sorts.

The year is 2030, and the world is in an era of an extreme plague of superbugs. This semi-apocalyptic period was no surprise. Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin, said in 1941, “There is the danger, that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant” (“Superbugs”). This underexposure, however, is not the only factor that has led the world to its current state. The convenience of overusing and abusing antibiotics in agriculture is the major reason the world has reverted back to 19th century medical times. Until recently, it was widely thought that those who misuse antibiotics would not be the ones to pay the cost. While this mindset of convenience and even laziness was thought to be easily afforded by America’s rich—we’ve realized that bacteria know no bounds and will replicate anywhere they see fit.

Only 15 years ago, we thought there were three possible paths the world could take to avoid where we are now in this plague of superbugs. The first option was to crack down on doctors’ prescriptions of unnecessary antibiotics for ailments like colds and the flu. The second included severely limiting agricultural use. And the last option, the one we unconsciously and foolishly thought would be best, was to do nothing. Sadly, something terrible happened instead, as we saw the results of overusing antibiotics start to catch up with us in the following years.

The regression of earth’s medical practices back to those of the 19th century went unnoticed for the first few years. Poorer countries saw huge upticks in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), otherwise known to most as that-scary-microorganism- that-you-only-ever-hear-about. In order to save people infected with MRSA, they needed to go to upscale hospitals, which were only found in developed countries. The consequence was the downfall of many third world countries, including Liberia and Bangladesh, because they couldn’t afford the resources more developed countries had. Many drug companies in the United States had started to study new antibiotics for bacteria such as MRSA but they terminated this research after they decided it was a money black hole. Soon after the research ceased to exist, the western world saw its own considerable rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Beginning in 2011, there were rates of nearly 450,000 new cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis each year, and one-third of those people died. The number of new cases started to double each year, until it was out of control. For each patient with resistant tuberculosis, hospitals could treat 200 patients with the less lethal varieties of tuberculosis, but when the numbers grew wildly out of hand, hospitals even in the United States didn’t have the resources to cope. As the cases of tuberculosis rose, and the hospital rate of treatment decreased, the death rate from tuberculosis skyrocketed. This signaled the downfall of the world as it had once been known. Today in 2030, 90 percent of our current population has tuberculosis. Of those 90 percent, 80 percent develop symptoms leading to death. These levels of tuberculosis haven’t been witnessed since the 19th century.

Our family has its own personal story with the microbe. My father thought it was just a cold. He came home from work one day with the slightest tingling in his chest. As the night went on he developed a trivial cough, so he decided to go to bed a little early. The following day his cough had gotten so bad the whole house seemed to shake with each forceful expulsion of air. And each desperate inhale of breath just rattled, making each gasp an attempt at life. The next day he decided to see his doctor. The physician performed myriad tests, one of which came back positive for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. We were devastated—there was nothing the doctors could do. Over the next few weeks his cough turned bloody, and his appetite waned. Then he started losing weight. By the time he had infected the other people in my family, the bacteria had “consumed” him, and he died. (In the 19th century this disease was known as consumption, caused by the microorganism Mycobacterium tuberculosis.) I was fortunate enough to remain uninfected, but the rest of my family met the same outcome as my father.

Today, Madison in 2030 is missing the lively attitude spring used to bring in May. There is no sound—only silence. There are no birds hanging onto trees, or squirrels tearing across streets. And wildlife hasn’t been the only casualty, as people are walking past me without interacting with each other. No one’s hugging, kissing, shaking hands or even saying hello to each other. Everyone is carrying out their lives as far away from each other as possible. People seem like aliens—strangers to their once normal lives. The entirety of the estranged populous now wears blue surgical masks, and latex gloves. They are covered in an antimicrobial plastic. No one washes their hands or uses hand sanitizer anymore, as it simply isn’t enough to eradicate the microbes. The best thing people can do for protection is to barricade themselves from the outer world. Each morning, even I must fulfill the new guidelines of the U.S. government, by donning my own plastic, impermeable bubble. As I look through my tainted plastic window on the dismal world, I still think it could have been prevented.

Even though this so called “impermeable” bubble around us is not 100 percent effective, that is not to say it hasn’t saved many lives. New bacterial infections have come to an almost complete standstill here in the U.S. ever since people began to wear them. Still, along with this success, we have some less noticed issues as well. The risk of infection during surgeries has skyrocketed over 20 percent, so only absolutely necessary lifesaving procedures are performed. If a person’s eyes are ruined from cataracts, there are no options for repair. One cannot walk a block without someone running into them because all they see is a colorful dull blur of the world. Even plastic surgery has ceased to exist, which might seem like a trivial effect, but many people used to rely on it for ease of life after serious accidents.

Today, everyone walking past me on the street has a story about their family members, friends, colleagues, or acquaintances that have been sickened by a resistant bacterial infection. However, all is not lost. Now that people have been sickened there is a huge movement to reserve the few effective antibiotics left for the direst of situations. Giving antibiotics to cattle, along with other agricultural uses for the drugs, has completely stopped. We have adapted to smaller meat portions and higher prices. No one asks for antibiotics anymore. They know that if they are healthy enough to ask for them, they don’t need them. Now that there are huge outbreaks of resistant bacteria, drug companies have suddenly picked their self-centered carcasses off their couches and gone back into the lab. New drugs are promised within months and then this whole crisis is promised to be over.

But nothing is absolute—as we’ve seen in the past. And it could have been over a lot faster, or even never started if we had been less selfish and short-sighted to begin with. Millions of people did not have to become sickened and fall victim to the egocentricity of individuals who misused antibiotics. If the masses around the world had followed the great advice from science’s best and brightest minds, our world would not have fallen victim to the merciless bacteria.


“The Spread of Superbugs.” The Economist. 31 Mar. 2011. Web. 1 May 2015.

Instructor’s Memo

For their Sequence Three final project, I asked my class to demonstrate their understanding of the relationship between genre and argument by remixing or remediating an existing text. Students were asked to take a clear stance on an issue and then choose a genre that would effectively convince a reader of their claims. Jared was interested in rewriting an article from The Economist called “The Spread of Superbugs,” which he felt did not do a good enough job of spreading the message of antibiotic resistance to a general public not already interested in the science behind it. He felt that using some kind of storytelling genre would better illustrate the argument the article was trying to make, and also make that argument more convincing to a larger audience.

At our one-on-one conferences and during peer workshops, Jared showed that he was not afraid to try new things or arrive at the best possible choices through trial and error. After attempting to write a letter to today’s audience from the future, he decided that adding a time travel element unnecessarily cluttered up his objectives, and he chose to write a speculative fiction narrative based on current research instead. Throughout Sequences One and Two, Jared had already demonstrated his strength in narrative writing and his understanding of the different ways that narratives can be used to stimulate desired reader responses through things such as emotional appeals, imagery, sensory details, and actively engaging the imagination. I feel that his final paper very cleverly plays to his strengths while also achieving his rhetorical goal of spreading information about the dangers of antibiotic resistance in a very creative way. It is an enjoyable piece to read, which makes it powerful because it can speak to those who might otherwise turn away from an alarming topic.

—Sunny Chan

Writer’s Memo

In the first few weeks of class we focused mainly on the narrative writing form. While I had some experience writing narratives prior to the class, I had never worked as extensively on the editing and revision process as at the beginning of the semester. I learned through this process how much I enjoyed writing in the narrative form, as well as how much I could capture through this method.

By the end of the semester, in Sequence 3, we were given free rein in choosing a form for our final project. We were assigned the task of remediating the content of an article that interested us. After an initial state of being overwhelmed with coming up with an interesting topic as well as an interesting article, I finally had a revelation. I narrowed down my interests and started looking for articles on antibiotic resistance, as this subject concerns me and I was curious to learn more about the issue. When I came across the article from The Economist, “The Spread of Superbugs,” I knew it was the right choice.

My first thoughts in writing my paper were that my essay had to be more accessible and entertaining for the reader who perhaps had no interest in the topic. I knew, almost right away, that a narrative would be the perfect way to remediate this piece. I focused on two methods to accomplish the remediation. First, I remembered how effective it was to appeal to the reader’s emotions, particularly in some informative narratives I had read. Second, I wanted to include some scientific figures and data about the problems the world faces to round out my paper. With this approach, I set the scene in Madison as I felt I would be able to connect to the most people who would be reading my narrative. Through the descriptions and a bit of science, my objectives were to inform the reader about the dangerous microbes we face not only today, but especially down the road. I think the most valuable thing I learned from writing this piece was that there are many ways to create an effective piece of writing. Sometimes the best way is to start writing and see what approach fits best. As I honed in on using the narrative form to capture my specific ideas, I still had to delete and add ideas and move pieces in the narrative to achieve an organized flow. However, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from writing this piece is that writing takes time. One has to craft and develop ideas before a final form is achieved.

— Jared Godfrey

Student Writing Award: Narrative Essay
This essay was previously published in the 9th edition of CCC.