By Mark Alpert
The New York Times ran an interesting story this week about the experience of re-watching the 2011 film Contagion while the new coronavirus rages all around us. That movie was weirdly prescient in its description of society’s response to a deadly microbe that emerges in China and quickly spreads to the rest of the world. Some of the film’s characters scoffed at the danger, some tried to sound a warning, and many, many of them succumbed to infection.
I saw Contagion when the movie came out, but I don’t remember it so well. In my opinion, the best fictional treatment of a pandemic — by far — is in the opening chapters of Stephen King’s The Stand. With incredible speed and vividness, King describes how a super-virulent government-engineered strain of influenza escapes from a secret lab out West and rampages across the country. Snippets of those chapters came back to me full force this week as I read the news about Covid-19 sweeping through nursing homes in Washington State and synagogues near New York City. Here are a few samples:
“By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.”
“The man from the Chevy died twenty miles from the hospital. He drew one final bubbling gasp, let it out, hitched in a smaller one, and just quit.”
“Joe Bob felt fine; dying was the last thing on his mind. Nevertheless, he was already a sick man. He had gotten more than gas at Bill Hapscomb’s Texaco.”
“He had a slight cold, an allergy cold, maybe, and he kept sneezing and having to spit. In the course of the meal he infected Babe, the dishwasher, two truckers in a corner booth, the man who came in to deliver bread, and the man who came in to change the records on the juke. He left the sweet thang that waited his table a dollar tip that was crawling with death.”
It’s not really fair to compare Captain Trips (the nickname of the pandemic disease in The Stand) with Covid-19; the former had a death rate of over 99 percent of those infected, while the latter’s death rate has been estimated at 1 to 3 percent. (And those estimates may be wildly inaccurate because we just don’t know how many people have been infected by the new coronavirus so far.) Still, the emotional impact of the current real-life crisis feels similar to what I read in The Stand. Like Stephen King’s characters in the novel’s early chapters, we’re experiencing confusion, disbelief, fear, and helplessness.
The Stand is what I would call a Crisis Novel. I’ll define this category as the subset of thrillers that involve a threat so terrible it could take down the human race, or at least a substantial portion of it. Stephen King has written a few other Crisis Novels: The Cell (a mysterious signal transmitted by cellphones drives people mad), Under the Dome (an impenetrable transparent dome descends on a Maine town), and Tommyknockers (residents of another Maine town unearth a buried spaceship that transforms them into alien creatures). Other notable Crisis Novels include Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears (a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl), Max Brooks’s World War Z (zombies), Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (Ice-9), and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (the moon shatters into billions of pieces that rain down on the Earth).
I think it would be useful to take a closer look at the fundamental narratives of the Crisis Novels and compare them with the sequence of events that have occurred so far in the Covid-19 crisis. By analyzing the real-life events as if they were fictional, we might gain some insights on how to combat the threat more effectively. With that in mind, I’ll propose three important attributes of a global crisis, readily apparent in real life and often reproduced in fiction:
1) In a crisis, the fear is unevenly distributed. This is something that many novelists get wrong. Sometimes their characters all react the same way to the looming catastrophe, with everyone in denial when the threat seems distant, then suddenly shifting to mass panic when the shit hits the fan. But the Covid-19 crisis shows once again that people are quite variable in how they respond to threats. When scientists first identified the new coronavirus late last year, a few doctors in China tried to raise the alarm, but most of the government officials downplayed the danger. For those officials, the greater peril was losing their jobs, and their automatic reaction to the newly emerged microbe was to insist that nothing terrible was happening on their watch.
In the U.S., the initial reaction wasn’t urgent either, or at least not urgent enough to effectively slow the spread of the virus. We still tend to dismiss disasters that occur on the other side of the world, even though globalization has made this attitude dangerously obsolete. And even within our country, many of our fears are segregated; one segment of the population often ignores or dismisses dangers that disproportionately impact a different segment. For example, many well-off urban and suburban Americans were unaware of the opioid crisis while it was gaining steam over the past twenty years, mostly because they were unfamiliar with the poor, isolated communities in Appalachia and New England where opioids were killing so many people. There’s been a similar reaction to the crisis of gun violence, which has a disproportionate impact on people of color (52 percent of gun homicide victims are black men, even though they make up less than 7 percent of the total population). And it should be noted that the annual death tolls from opioids and gun violence are a thousand times higher than the number of Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19 so far.
Although the new coronavirus doesn’t seem to discriminate by either geography or socioeconomic status — it’s already spread to most parts of the U.S., and it infects both the rich and the poor — Covid-19 is much more of a threat to the old than to the young. The current statistics on this disease are iffy at best, but it seems that the death rate for people under the age of 50 is well under 1 percent, while the rate for people over 80 is more than ten times higher. (Elderly people are more likely to have the chronic health problems that make Covid-19 deadlier. Also, their immune systems are weaker.) Thus we have the odd situation right now in Florida, where young people are swarming to the beaches as they do every year for spring break, while their elders are frantically canceling sports events and parades and any other large gatherings that are conducive to viral transmission.
2) In a crisis, the villain is inertia. I want to single out a glaring example of how bureaucratic inertia stymied the efforts to contain Covid-19 after it arrived on our shores. The very first detection of the illness in the U.S. occurred in mid-January when a Washington State man who’d recently traveled to China tested positive for the new coronavirus. State health officials also tested fifty of the man’s contacts and none tested positive, but there was still a chance that he could’ve passed the virus to someone else. Luckily, local researchers had already launched the Seattle Flu Study, which was collecting nose swabs from thousands of people in the area in an effort to study how influenza spreads. (The flu is caused by a different kind of virus that’s been infecting people for centuries, maybe even millennia. Every year it kills tens of thousands of Americans, most of them elderly and/or chronically ill.)
When the flu researchers in Seattle learned about the new coronavirus, they realized they could search for this microbe in their thousands of collected samples to see if the new bug was spreading across the region and warn anyone who’d contracted it. But state and federal officials wouldn’t let them do it. They raised two objections: the Seattle Flu Study’s lab had the wrong kind of certification for this task (it was a research lab, not a clinical lab) and the subjects of the study (that is, the people whose noses had been swabbed) hadn’t given their consent for the new kind of testing. Although both objections had some legitimacy — it is indeed important to regulate labs and obtain consent for medical research — those concerns should’ve been overridden by the urgent need to protect the public health. The Seattle researchers frantically tried to appeal to the common sense of the federal officials (at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but the bureaucrats wouldn’t budge.
Frustrated and desperate, the researchers finally decided in late February to test their samples without permission. And sure enough, they detected the new coronavirus in a teenager who’d had a flu swab just a few days before. What’s more, a genetic analysis of the microbe found in the teenager showed that his virus was very closely related to the one that had been detected in the first Covid-19 patient more than a month before. The virus had been circulating in the Seattle area for weeks, undetected. An earlier detection by the Seattle Flu Study could’ve slowed and maybe even halted the coronavirus’s spread in Washington State, but thanks to inertia, the microbe went on to kill dozens in the region, more than half of whom were either residents or employees of just one nursing home.
It’s obvious now that someone should’ve intervened and cut the red tape, but nobody in the federal government had the authority, expertise, and situational awareness to step in and overrule the bureaucrats. The problem wasn’t really bad leadership — it was a lack of leadership.
It’s hard to present this kind of real-life situation in a novel. Action is more dramatic than inaction, and blinkered bureaucrats don’t make satisfying villains. That’s probably why the Contagion movie introduced an ancillary villain, a blogger (played by Jude Law) who spreads misinformation about the film’s dreaded disease. It’s more compelling to watch an evil person commit foul deeds (and perhaps be punished for them) than to observe a microscopic virus follow its evolutionary imperative to thrive and reproduce. Similarly, the villain in Stephen King’s The Stand isn’t Captain Trips; it’s Randall Flag, the satanic wanderer who seems to have triggered the novel’s pandemic somehow.
3) In a crisis, the hero is sacrifice. In the past few days, government leaders have acknowledged their failure to contain the new coronavirus and have aggressively pursued a new strategy: using “social distancing” to slow the virus’s spread. In New York, the governor has banned all large gatherings. The theaters on Broadway have gone dark, and no one will parade down Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day. March Madness has been canceled, NBA games suspended. Colleges across the country have barred their students from returning to campus after spring break, and their professors will have to deliver their lectures online for the rest of the semester. One of my kids came home from college yesterday, and I’m expecting the other to return to New York today.
And there will surely be more sacrifices to come. Everyone recognizes that widespread infection by the new coronavirus is inevitable, but the goal now is to “flatten the curve,” to spread out the infections over time so that the hospitalizations of the most severe cases don’t occur all at once and overwhelm our health care system. If that should happen, we wouldn’t have enough doctors and nurses to care for the desperately ill, nor enough mechanical ventilators to keep them breathing. So the goal is a good one. The sacrifices are worthwhile.
If we’re lucky, the new coronavirus will turn out to have a seasonal pattern of transmission like influenza’s, and the number of infections will subside once the weather warms up. But that’s not a sure thing. Covid-19 is closely related to MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which is caused by another coronavirus that is deadlier than the new one but much less infectious. (It persists at a very low prevalence in the Arabian Peninsula.) And cases of MERS actually peak in the summer.
Either way, we need to accelerate the development and testing of a vaccine. That should be our top priority right now, higher than saving the Tokyo Olympics or the NBA or Wall Street. If I were writing a Crisis Novel about it, I would focus on the residents of a locked-down nursing home whose staff is heroically trying to keep their patients alive. Maybe one of the residents is a retired public-heath official or former pharmaceutical executive who comes up with a brilliant idea that could enable a safe vaccine to be developed in record time, perhaps just six months. But no one takes her seriously, because she’s so old, and her worried children won’t even allow her to step foot outside the nursing home, much less set up a crash program for vaccine development with her former colleagues at Merck or the CDC. She’s clever, though. She figures out how to overcome the obstacles.
And God willing, something similar will happen in real life too.