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

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.

RELATED: Reader suggestions: What’s on your quarantine watch list?

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.


Like us on Facebook and follow @wolfgang_depner

wolfgang.depner@peninsulanewsreview.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Colwood art centre shuts its doors indefinitely

Board members look for new location when feasible, continue online

Study looks at feasibility of Vancouver Island abattoir

South Island Prosperity Partnership funds study looking at local meat processing

Greater Victoria guide dog walk turns to virtual physical challenge

Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides is May 31 with an online twist

Bike lane closed, traffic impacted by landscaping in Metchosin

Construction begins May 25, to be complete by mid-July

Saanich looks to help restaurants increase capacity with outdoor seating

District working to ensure restaurants can make the most of summer weather, mayor says

B.C. records no new COVID-19 deaths for the first time in weeks

Good news comes despite 11 new test-positive cases in B.C. in the past 24 hours

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

Tahsis opens its gates to visitors to save local economy

Seasonal local businesses that rely on tourism hope to survive despite drop in tourist numbers

BC Corrections to expand list of eligible offenders for early release during pandemic

Non-violent offenders are being considered for early release through risk assessment process

Fraser Valley driver featured on ‘Highway Thru Hell’ TV show dies

Monkhouse died Sunday night of a heartattack, Jamie Davis towing confirmed

Island city cancels plan for homeless camp; exploring alternative option

The plan heard strong objection from neighbouring residents and businesses

B.C. visitor centres get help with COVID-19 prevention measures

Destination B.C. gearing up for local, in-province tourism

36 soldiers test positive for COVID-19 after working in Ontario, Quebec care homes

Nearly 1,700 military members are working in long-term care homes overwhelmed by COVID-19

Most Read