Pandemic dystopias, apocalypse and hope

I read Albert Camus’ The Plague during the swine flu pandemic in 2009. I thought I was being very droll. What happened was I got things all out of proportion. Nothing really came of swine flu in the UK. No-one had to change anything in their daily lives. One person in my office got it and was off sick for a bit. We drew up business continuity plans, but they never got enacted. I, however, with a head full of The Plague, was terrified.

For all the lols, why not read The Plague during a pandemic?

Then would you know it, for our Utopian Book Group meeting in March 2020 we thought we would read Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. A speculative fiction about a flu pandemic that kills most of the world’s population. While a coronavirus pandemic is brewing IRL. What japes! We held our book group meeting in person on 2 March 2020. Three weeks later the UK went into lockdown and a book group meeting in a cafe has been out of the question ever since.

So what insight can I share from reading a pandemic dystopia in a pandemic this time round?

The world has changed

At first I was oddly reassured when reading Station Eleven. Our pandemic isn’t as bad as that, I thought. Mortality rate is much lower. Doesn’t spread so fast. Then I got to this passage:

One of the great scientific questions in Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now. The era of light pollution had come to an end. The increasing brilliance meant the grid was failing, darkness pooling over the earth. I was here for the end of electricity. The thought sent shivers up Clark’s spine.

“The lights will come back on someday,” Elizabeth kept insisting, “and then we’ll all finally get to go home.” But was there actually any reason to believe this?

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven, p.251

The funny thing about reading a pandemic dystopia in a pandemic is you can start reading it as a kind of handbook instead of as a fiction. It may have been speculative when it was written, but when it’s actually happening you look for what you can learn from it in a more immediate kind of way.

The unsettling (understatement) truth I learnt from this passage is a pandemic is history-changing. It’s not a little side path you meander down for a while before it brings you back to the main road. It’s a different route. You’re not going back to the road you thought you were on, you’re going somewhere else. You never were going to go down that main road, and now you know.

Apocalypse; noun. From the Greek apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal’

Scary, right? It is an apocalypse, not in the sense that the world is ending but in its original meaning of an unveiling. The pandemic will end, pandemics always end. But we have seen things. We have seen how a virus, an agent without sentience or political agenda, can find and demonstrate every point of weakness in our society. Mostly, we have seen that we made this pandemic happen.

I highly recommend listening to or reading Shaking the Viral Tree: An Interview with David Quammen over on Emergence Magazine.

David Quammen is a scientifc journalist and author of Spillover, published in 2012. In his words back in 2012, “zoonosis [infection that spreads from animals to humans] sounds like a technical word, an unfamiliar word, but it’s going to become very familiar to people in the twenty-first century”.

Above: Trailer for David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover

The main thing I learnt from the interview is that a pandemic isn’t a statistical blip. It isn’t a chance occurrence, wholly unconnected with human activity. Just as a hurricane, flood or drought isn’t necessarily just weather anymore now we’ve screwed up the climate, a pandemic is the result of us overstepping ecological boundaries.

(I would like to remember at this point that the world has been changed by some humans more than others. When I say ‘we’ and ‘us’ I’m speaking as a white European.)

Once you realise this stuff, you realise WE CAN’T GO BACK. If you think you can, you’re deluded like Elizabeth in Station Eleven.

Pandemic… utopias?

The idea of a pandemic utopia is in incredibly bad taste. Over 125,000 people have died so far in this pandemic in the UK at the time of writing this post. If anyone told me they wanted to make a utopia out of this I would tell them to fuck off. But this whole ongoing event has shown us (if we are willing to see) that we need to start living differently.

There is already talk circulating of a new ‘roaring twenties’ after the pandemic, a frenzy of hedonistic consumption and jet-setting. Apparently this idea is giving some people hope and something to look forward to. Not me. It shows me that we need utopian thinking to save us from re-enacting our former mistakes in the pursuit of happiness.

We need to imagine ecologically sound, fairer and healthier ways of being – and of partying, celebrating and finding joy. So, I fervently hope that utopias can and will proliferate in the wake of the pandemic, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of all this shit.