Social distancing in the wake of COVID-19 has revived countless movies and books dealing with pandemics (Pixabay)

Fictionalized accounts of pandemics offer glimpses into our COVID-19 present

Contagion might capture the contemporary mood, but pandemics have a long tradition in fiction

  • Mar. 29, 2020 12:00 a.m.

Seen against the backdrop of COVID-19, the 2011 movie Contagion featuring a global all-star cast has experienced a revival.

Viewership of the movie on Netflix has surged, while drawing praise (if the term is appropriate) from public health officials for its relatively realistic depiction of a global pandemic that started in China, then spread from there. Real life and fiction have further merged insofar that the medical consultant of the movie, Dr. Ian Lipkin, has contracted COVID-19 himself.

But if Contagion is the movie capturing today’s mood, fictionalized accounts of pandemics have a long tradition in human culture, starting with the Old Testament with its framing of pandemics as heavenly wrath for human failings and hubris. This theory of pandemics as divine punishment also appears in non-religious literature cross cultures and historical periods, including Classical antiquity, the European Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

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The emergence of modern science and secularization starting with the Enlightenment gradually eliminated, then erased divine retribution as the central cause of pandemics in fictional accounts. Today, environmental changes, failed medical experiments and global power conflict are responsible for fictional pandemics, reflecting broader fears about planetary collapse, globalization and declining trust in government, as measured by the growing power of conspiracy theories.

The Eyes of Darkness, a 1981 book by Dean Koontz about a pandemic, does not just predict the geographic origin of COVID-19, it also previews outlandish, unsubstantiated claims floated by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump including U.S. Senator Tom Cotton that the virus causing COVID-19 was a leaked Chinese bioweapon aimed to harm the United States specifically and the rest of the world generally.

If God is dead in the fictional world of pandemics, writers of books, then movies continue to use pandemics as backdrops to explore inner lives, personal failings, generational conflicts, and ultimately decay, both from the perspective of the individual and civilization as a whole.

Protagonists in such accounts, many of them uncouth on the outside or burdened by some internal struggle, often find themselves surviving in small groups or on their own in Dystopian environments, simultaneously grieving what they lost, while steeling themselves against various challenges to their survival, including social contact with others.

We might not be fighting off zombies (World War Z), cannibalistic humans (The Road) or live on our own in empty, decaying cities (Omega Man, I Am Legend) during the COVID-19 pandemic, but who among us has not looked at others with that extra bit of suspicious, only to feel the sentiment returned?

Post-apocalyptic accounts also often pit the young against the old, as it was the case in the Original Star Trek episode of Miri, where Kirk, Spock and McCoy encounter an exact version of Earth, only to find that a disease caused by a life-prolonging experiment gone wrong had killed all the “grups” (grown-ups) with the twist that the surviving children will die as well once they hit puberty.

Let us only hope that the various effects of COVID-19 do not last long as adolescence.


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