What we don’t know about the threat posed by COVID-19 vastly exceeds what we do. But we are not unequipped – this is not our first time facing a mortal outbreak. Writers great and, frankly, not-so-great have done their best to convey a sense of the past life-threatening illnesses visited upon our maybe-too resilient species, from the mysterious mass sickness that swept through classical Athens to the bubonic plague that bedeviled medieval Europe, from the smallpox Europeans brought to the Americas, destroying the Indigenous population, to the influenza that killed millions at the end of the First World War. Within recent memory, we have faced AIDS, SARS and Ebola, all of them subjects taken on by journalists and novelists alike. The works of fiction and non-fiction they have written contain a set of tools, both existential and intellectual, for facing this health crisis, and create a record of those who have risen to past occasions of this nature – and those who, conspicuously, have not.
In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides writes that the Athenians were quick to blame foreigners for the pestilence that hit their city during the military conflict with the Spartans: “The story goes that the sickness started in the part of Ethiopia above Egypt, and then it moved to Egypt and Libya.” Some said the Spartans had put the pathogen into their cisterns – at least until the Spartans got hit by the same illness. Diseases, then and now, do not care where we reside.
In Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex, the king named in the title tries to pinpoint the cause of the plague that has left his city, Thebes, “reeling like a wreck, [such that] it can scarcely lift its prow out of … the bloody surf … the town heavy with a mingled burden of sounds and smells, of groans and hymns and incense.” The cause, of course, is himself: “You are the land’s pollution,” seer Teiresias tells him, in the words of David Grene’s elegant translation. The city is singled out for punishment because Oedipus has unknowingly killed his father and bedded his mother. Viewed from a certain angle, this early drama is about leadership, what the king must do when he realizes he is, in fact, not part of the solution, but the problem.
The nobles who feature in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron are not made of such stern, responsibility-taking stuff. When the bubonic plague hits 14th-century Florence, they retreat to their villas in the hills and tell each other raunchy stories – an illustration, maybe, of the way the sexual impulse can peak in dangerous times, the life force thumbing its nose at death. This book also depicts the power of privilege, which, then as now, provided at least some protection to the elite.
The middle-class protagonist in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year does not flee plague-ridden London, although his brother advises him to. “I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop [as a saddler] … in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city.” Not much of a choice. Set in 1655 and published in 1722, the novel was likely based, in part, on the journals of the author’s uncle, and speaks of bodies piling up in mass graves, of sudden deaths and unlikely recoveries from the brink, and also blames those from elsewhere for the outbreak. “It was brought, some said, from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods” shipped from Turkey.
After the U.S. government’s decision this past week to restrict European nationals from coming to America, a Twitter user joked darkly that the ban arrived centuries too late. Some estimates have as many as 90 per cent of Indigenous people in the Americas dying from the toxic cocktail of ailments – smallpox, measles and flu – that waves of European settlers brought to them. In the young-adult novel The Birchbark House, National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich tells the story of an Ojibwe village near Lake Superior in the mid-19th century. Many die during a smallpox outbreak, while a few survive but are disfigured by the illness. In a scene of high pathos, its central character, a girl named Omakayas, holds her infant brother while (spoiler alert) he succumbs.
The 1919 influenza virus likely went the other way, from the Americas to Europe, incubating in U.S. military camps and moving with the American soldiers heading over to fight in the First World War. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the remarkable short story by Katherine Anne Porter that lent its name to a collection, features a wisecracking reporter for an American regional paper who circulates with her solider boyfriend through streets that are “full of funerals all day, and ambulances all night.” Experiencing delirium caused by the flu as she nears death, she realizes, “All this time, I was getting ready for something that was going to happen later.”
The progress of that flu is anatomized in John Barry’s 2004 history, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It tracks the efforts of a team of scientists racing to come up with a vaccine, often having to overcome obstacles put in their path by politicians and the news media. “City authorities and newspapers continued to minimize the danger,” Barry writes, with one paper stating, “There is no cause for panic or alarm.” He concludes: “The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute is that … those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing.”
The way the different social players interact in a health crisis is also the subject of Ann Silversides’s unjustly neglected 2003 biography of Michael Lynch, the late University Toronto literature professor and LGBT community leader. In AIDS Activist, the journalist describes how Lynch used both diplomacy and critique to mobilize Canadian governmental actors and public-health agencies to respond to the rash of deaths caused by what was, when it first drew attention in the early 1980s, a mysterious ailment dubbed the Gay Plague. His realization that he is afflicted with HIV does not subdue him, as he continues to plan funerals for his friends and attend all-night dance parties.
The HIV virus, as scientists learned, “does not travel easily from person to person, and it does not travel through the air.” Journalist Richard Preston makes this observation in his New York Times-bestselling book, The Hot Zone, about another virus, Ebola. This informative but overwritten book explores how viruses cross the species barrier – which is relevant to this novel coronavirus outbreak – and replicate in one human body, then move from one person to the next. “Viruses are molecular sharks, a motive without a mind,” he writes. “Compact, hard, logical, totally selfish, the virus is dedicated to making copies of itself, which it can on occasion with radiant speed.”
The ability of viruses to move at such speeds – and across borders – is the focus of an after-the-fact exploration of the international response to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which spread rapidly from China via Hong Kong to Toronto in 2003.
In Networked Disease: Emerging Infections in the Global City, a collection of essays published in 2008, its editors A. Harris Ali and Roger Keil – both York University professors – predict the coming of another respiratory ailment that would move as quickly as SARS. Containment as a primary strategy – blocking an illness from entering a country – is not given much support.
“Viewed immediately as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for a pandemic,” they write, “SARS was very much considered a national crisis despite its concentration in Toronto.” Whether the lessons of that so-called dress rehearsal have been learned remains an outstanding question.
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