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Canadians raised in the 1940s remember the signs being everywhere. ‘Scarlet fever.' ‘Diphtheria.’ Do not enter. Do not touch. But we endured – and we can do it again

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Illustration by Bryan Gee

Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel is The Testaments.

There are two kinds of nightmares. The first is the bad dream you’ve had many times before. You find yourself in a very familiar, sinister place: the creepy cellar, the murderous hotel, the dark forest. But since it’s a nightmare you’ve experienced before, your focus is sharpened admirably: the pointed stick worked against the monster last time, so let’s try again.

In the second nightmare, everything that ought to be familiar is strange. You’re lost, there are no directions and you don’t know what to do.

It seems we’re living through both kinds at the moment, but which will resonate most with you will depend on your age. The second nightmare is a good fit for the young, who have never experienced anything like this before. What’s happening? they cry. Life is ruined! Nothing will ever be normal again! I can’t stand it!

But, for old folks like me, it’s the first nightmare that is plaguing our sleep once more: We’ve been here before, or if not here, somewhere eerily like it.

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Toronto, 1947: Ignoring a polio warning sign, children from the quarantined J Block at Stanley Barracks – a military depot converted to emergency housing – play with children from another block. Several more would be infected that summer at Stanley Barracks, one of many fronts in a nationwide wave of polio that reached every province from 1946 to 1953.John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

Any child growing up in Canada in the 1940s, at a time before there were vaccines for a horde of deadly diseases, was familiar with quarantine signs. They were yellow and they appeared on the front doors of houses. They said things such as DIPHTHERIA and SCARLET FEVER and WHOOPING COUGH. Milkmen – there were still milkmen in those years, sometimes with horse-drawn wagons – and bread men, ditto, and even icemen, and certainly postmen (and yes, they were all men), had to leave things on the front doorsteps. We kids would stand outside in the snow – for me, it was always winter in cities, as the rest of the time my family was up in the woods – gazing at the mysterious signs and wondering what gruesome things were going on inside the houses. Children were especially susceptible to these diseases, especially diptheria – I had four little cousins who died of it – so once in a while a classmate would disappear, sometimes to return, sometimes not.

You were absolutely not supposed to go to public swimming pools in the summer, we were told, because there might be an outbreak of polio. Carnivals then had freak shows, and quite often one of the attractions would be The Girl in the Iron Lung, who was stuck inside a metallic tube and who could not move, even to breathe: the Iron Lung did her breathing for her, with a gasping sound that was amplified over the P.A. system.

As for lesser diseases such as chicken pox, tonsillitis, mumps and the common kind of measles, kids were just expected to get them, and they did. When you were ill you were, of necessity, at home and in bed, and when you were recovering you risked boredom. No TV or video games; what you were given instead, in addition to the ginger ale and grape juice, was a pile of old magazines, a scrapbook, and scissors and paste. You cut out the more interesting pictures and pasted them into the scrapbook. One Lysol ad showed a woman up to her waist in water labelled Doubt, Inhibitions, Ignorance, and Misgivings, with the caption: Too Late to Cry Out in Anguish!

Me: “Why is she crying out in anguish?”

Mother: “I need to hang out the wash.”

Magazine ads showed germs hiding everywhere, especially in sinks and toilets, equipped with devilish horns and malignant, evil little faces. Soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, drain cleaner and household bleach were what you needed, and in vast quantities. Germs caused many illnesses, but they also caused personal tragedies such as halitosis – “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” the ad mourned, because the lovely lady in the pretty dress and the sad face had Bad Breath – and B.O., which meant Body Odour. Horrors! It was worse than a disease! As the forties shifted into the fifties and adolescence swept over us, we went around sniffing our underarms and investing our baby-sitting money in deodorants and floral-scented cologne, because Even Your Best Friend Wouldn’t Tell You.

Then there were feet. What could be done about feet? Various powders might be used. But, judging from the general classroom aroma, frequently they were not.

The worst thing about the nasty germs that were causing all of these diseases, not to mention smells, was that they were invisible. Nothing is scarier than an enemy you can’t see.

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Toronto, 1957: Workers prepare flu vaccine in a batch of fertilized eggs at the University of Toronto's Connaught Laboratories during a pandemic of H2N2, a new influenza type. One to two million people around the world died in the pandemic, including about 7,000 in Canada.Unknown/The Globe and Mail

Invisible enemies have a long history. In 1693, the New England religious leader Cotton Mather published Wonders of the Invisible World, a defence of his belief in witchcraft and demons. Not long after the 17th century ended, he also supported the introduction of inoculation against smallpox to New England. Demons = invisible. Cause of smallpox also = invisible. It all fits! Inoculation almost got him lynched, as it involved rubbing material from an infected pock into a cut in your arm, which was vigorously counterintuitive for his countrymen at that time.

From inoculation came, eventually, vaccination, and then the hunt was on to identify the pathogens responsible for each of the killer diseases pestering mankind. The microscope made many things possible, and one by one, vaccines for common illnesses were developed. People were born into a world that felt safe from germs, or at least a lot safer than it had ever been. Rather than expecting to get a certain number of illnesses as a matter of course, newer generations now considered themselves exempt. Then along came AIDS and confidence was shaken, but only for a time. Treatments were developed, lives were prolonged and that danger too receded to the level of background noise.

But in the long view, plagues have been a recurring factor in human history. Bacteria and viruses have killed a great many more people than wars ever did. The mortality rate for the Black Death in Europe is estimated at 50 per cent; the death rate from pathogens introduced by Europeans to the inhabitants of the Americas, who had no immunity to them, is estimated at between 80 per cent and 90 per cent. Millions and millions died from the Spanish flu. From the point of view of a virus or a bacterium, you are not a fascinating individual with a memorable life story. You are merely a possible matrix in which a microbe can make more microbes.

In interludes between pandemics, we like to think it’s all over. Epidemiologists have never thought that. They’re always waiting for the next one.

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Oryx and Crake is a 2003 novel in which a genetically engineered virus kills most of the world's population.

In 2003, I published Oryx and Crake, which revolves around a lethal pandemic, although a man-made one. (In a sense, all are man-made: if we didn’t domesticate animals and eat certain kinds of wild ones, our chances of contracting new, species-leaping viruses would go way down.)

Was I always fated to write such a book? Possibly. My parents had both been through the Spanish flu in 1919 and their memories of it were vivid. In the fifties, when I was supposed to be doing my high-school homework, I was reading sci-fi, such as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which the invading Martians are defeated, not by warfare, but by microbes from Planet Earth, to which they have no immunity. Or I was reading fantasy, such as T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, in which good wizard Merlin defeats bad witch Madam Mim in a shape-changing battle by becoming a number of disease germs, which topple Mim’s monster dragon. Simultaneously I was reading Hans Zinsser’s classic, Rats, Lice, and History, about how outbreaks of disease affect us.

So, when we were studying Byron’s poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib, in which an Assyrian army is destroyed overnight, I did not ask myself which Angel of the Lord had been sent. Instead I wondered, “Which disease?” When Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal hit Canadian screens in 1958, I was more than ready for it.

Oryx and Crake did not attract any criticism from biologists telling me not to be silly because such a thing could never happen. They knew it could. Because, in some form or another, it already had.

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Toronto, 2020: A man wearing a mask on his head walks past a graffiti mural on the day Ontario introduced a provincewide ban on non-essential businesses to slow COVID-19's spread.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

So here we are again, I thought when the present pandemic began: drowning in Doubt, Ignorance, and Misgivings, surrounded by invisible evil germs that may be lying in wait anywhere, especially on elevator buttons; except that this time they aren’t shown in pictures as imps with horns, but as colourful and attractive tufted pompoms. But like those whimsical things that look cute at first but can take over your body in sci-fi films, these pompoms can kill.

What to do? In my 2008 book Payback, I gathered together the six reactions people had to the Black Death while it was unfolding. They were:

1. Protect yourself.

2. Give up and party, which could include drunkenness and theft.

3. Help others.

4. Blame. (Lepers, gypsies, witches and Jews were all blamed for spreading the plague.)

5. Bear witness.

6. Go about your life.

It’s not one or the other. I don’t suggest No. 2. Or No. 4 – giving up and blaming are not helpful – but protecting yourself, thereby helping others, or bearing witness by keeping a journal, or going about your life as much as you can with the aid of online support systems – these are possible now in a way that they were not in the 14th century.

So plaster a virtual quarantine sign on your door, don’t let strangers in, consider yourself a potential plague vector, watch The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (again) or The Seventh Seal (again). And get out the scissors and paste, analogue or digital, or the pen and paper, ditto. If you yourself are not ill, the pandemic may have given you a gift! That gift is time. Always meant to write a novel or take up clog-dancing? Now’s your chance.

And take heart! Humanity’s been through it before. There will be an Other Side, eventually. We just need to make it through this part, between Before and After. As novelists know, the middle section is the hardest to figure out. But it can be done.

Pandemic literature: A reading list

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Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/the Globe and Mail

What nine top Canadian authors would read in self-isolation

Five authors of new books reflect on dealing with adversity and crisis

Canadian authors on the passages and poems they turn to in times of trouble

New children’s books to keep kids entertained at home

Ten books that offer lessons from past pandemics

The hope at the heart of Albert Camus’s plague novel, La peste

Watch: The Globe and Mail offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in your community.

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