Science fiction as an adverb, instead of genre shorthand for our uncanny present-day reality. A run to the grocery, a moonwalk down the block, quick errands in N95 masks and latex gloves, maintaining six-foot intervals. Our daily existence is a communal narrative in a Crichton-esque thriller. Tourist attractions are bereft of tourists, metropolis ghost towns. The commute to send a package to one of the few FedEx stores still open becomes an exercise in urban exploration evoking scenes from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Ken Hannam’s Day of the Triffids (1981) or a Timothy Morton essay. A cyclist bikes the center lane of a highway. Billionaires advance on the frontiers of space in privatized rockets leaving burning American streets—littered with shattered glass and flaming wreckage—in their wake.
It makes sense. The pandemic of our sociological imagination, something I have spent over a decade contemplating (read: obsessing over) was formed more by the science fiction and horror fringes of literature. For every meditation by a Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus, or García Márquez there are hordes of B movie zombies—fast and slow—transmitting the metaphors of contagion. A recent salon-style conversation of pandemic authors Lawrence Wright, Geraldine Brooks, and Tom Perrotta noted that for its ubiquity today there are not a lot of mainstream literary treatments of the subject in the canon. “I think plague fiction is marked by its scarcity,” Lawrence Wright observes.
“There are some wonderful books…but what is really distinctive about pandemics and horrible disease outbreaks in the past is how little was made out of them. How little remarked they are in human consciousness. This was true even in the plague years. Chaucer just has a sketchy mention of it…People that actually lived in those times. And after 1918, for instance, a disease that killed more Americans, 675,000 it is estimated, than all the wars in the 20th century and yet that was completely purged from consciousness.” As if an amnesiac pact of collective denial was made to erase the pain.
Megan O’Grady writing for the New York Times takes up a similar thread in her essay What Can We Learn from the Art of Pandemics Past? states: “A marked silence surrounds illness in our culture, and yet it was always there, buried in our cultural consciousness, long before the advent of photography, in concepts that illustrate our sense of death’s inevitability — motifs that act almost as woodcuts of the mind, such as the Danse Macabre, or the Grim Reaper, connecting us across time with the living and the dead.”
A societal fugue state serves as a metaphor in the post-apocalyptic feminist drama Into the Forest (2015) written and directed by Patricia Rozema based on a novel by Jean Hegland. Psychologically, the term refers to a dissociative state where an amnesiac loses details of their personal identity assuming another life in its stead imprinting over the first. Rozema uses this set up to say that civilization itself is a false identity that supplants our original state. As civilization collapses— the internet abandoned, gas stations emptied, grocery stores overrun, food supplies dwindled—the characters turn to forging in the woods. Nell (Ellen Page) says to sister Eva (Rachel Wood) as they identify plants: “This was here the whole time.”
O’Grady observes that works of art from pandemics past serve as a scar tissue transmitting knowledge of the disease even after the events fade from memory. In short stories of Poe, nursery games like ring-around-the-rosy, the painting of Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele—the latter two artists who died of the 1918 Flu pandemic—and other artifacts our impressions of disease echoes between pandemics. This was here the whole time.
Marcus Aurelius who ruled the Roman Empire for 15 years of a plague that claimed five million lives mentions it only once in his Meditations. Chaucer grew up under the specter of Black Death, lost his wife to an outbreak, yet scarcely mentions it in his poetry. Shakespeare saw the Globe closed as part of a stay-at-home order and lost his son to an epidemic, yet makes only allusions in his work. Over the centuries, pandemic narratives are unmoored from their context or pushed underground, where society always goes to exorcise collective demons.
In mid-March of this year, during the early weeks of the (inter)national emergency, I took an unusual assignment— unusual even in this uncanny reality. I run a boutique social change communication consultancy that specializes in storytelling. My assignment was to develop public education messaging to navigate conspiracy theories and promote CDC health guidelines. The messaging, for populations distrustful of government, used health communication techniques designed to introduce health positive habits (exercise, diet) to populations facing personal, social, and structural behavioral barriers. As I turned my attention toward collecting and countering myth and misinformation in these early days of the pandemic, we had to create a whole new behavioral health strategy, bringing together community voices, health professionals, and communication experts.
This is a different front—what the WHO dubbed an “infodemic”— where the struggle to provide accurate, reliable, trustworthy information in the storm of confusion, contradiction, and conspiracy takes on life-threatening urgency. In an interview I produced for a public health webcast, Amy Laurent, an epidemiologist with the Seattle King County Public Health Department, depicted the earliest days of the outbreak as the first case on American soil touched down in her backyard. Information was flying all over the place at the tail end of a long, harsh, flu season that it was like trying to drink from the firehoses at the same time. If this is true of an educated public health professional with over 20 years in the field, it is dizzyingly mind-numbing for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, a New York Times survey, found roughly 36,000 media workers in the United States have been laid off, furloughed, or seen their pay reduced as businesses slashed advertising budgets in response to COVID. Sylvie Briand, the architect of WHO’s strategy to counter the infodemic risk, told The Lancet, “We know that every outbreak will be accompanied by a kind of tsunami of information, but also within this information you always have misinformation, rumours, etc.”
This phenomenon has existed as far back as we have a recorded history of outbreaks. During the 2nd Century Plague of Galen, a ruthless outbreak of measles or smallpox or both (depending on which historian you consult) that lasted 15 years was similarly plagued by misinformation and rumor. As Galen, physician, and namesake of the epidemic, traveled to Asia Minor for two years to observe and document in an act of proto-epidemiology, competing distorted reports reined on Rome like Apollo’s arrows in a verse from the Iliad. The death toll climbed to 2,000 a day. Chaldean sorcerers, who booby-trapped an abandoned Temple of Apollo with a supernatural pestilence in a golden chest were to blame. Or, Apollo himself—God of Medicine—firing diseased arrows on an ailing Rome as punishment for his defiled tomb. Or, dozens of other arguments for profit or political gain.
Author Donald Robertson writes of invented religions that arose in the tumult. Alexander of Abonoteichus, a con artist who created a human-headed snake-god named Glycon, built a shrine where his followers would puppeteer the deity for paying visitors. Robertson notes, “Alexander became very wealthy and powerful as a result of receiving payment for his prophecies and magical charms. Coins were even cast in honor of the god “Glycon” and statuettes made of him. During the height of the plague, Alexander was claiming to heal the sick with incantations. A crude verse from his oracle was used on amulets and inscribed over the doors of houses as a protection against the plague.”
In the Middle Ages, the Biblical God presiding over the Bubonic Plague was no less punishing — to Kaffa or Sicily or Venice or Marseille or London or any other infected city across Europe, Asia, and North Africa — than Apollo was in punishing Rome. Plague was carried by demons. It was scapegoated onto Jewish communities, who were perceived to be getting sick less frequently than their Christian neighbors, which was taken as evidence they were contaminating wells, rivers, and springs. Witches in league with the Devil were burnt alive. Xenophobia and racism were chased up and down the Silk Road to Asian cities where the plague was believed to have originated.
Cholera outbreaks of the 19th and 20th centuries were believed to be caused by toxic air and class-based conspiracies against reigning monarchies. In Russia and the UK, they led to riots in the streets. In France, a cholera outbreak in 1832 spread rapidly through the country leaving over 100,000 dead, a rate disproportionately outpacing their European neighbors. Tensions erupted in Parisian slums as the rich blamed the poor for the spread of the disease, while the poor insisted that the rich were attempting to poison them. King Louis-Philippe’s mismanagement of the cholera crisis led directly to the revolutionary/ counter-revolutionary events—clashing fringe right and left-wing forces—depicted in Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Misérables.
Braind continues in her interview with The Lancet, “the difference now with social media is that this phenomenon is amplified, it goes faster and further, like the viruses that travel with people and go faster and further. So it is a new challenge, and the challenge is the [timing] because you need to be faster if you want to fill the void…What is at stake during an outbreak is making sure people will do the right thing to control the disease or to mitigate its impact. So it is not only information to make sure people are informed; it is also making sure people are informed to act appropriately.”
In the weeks that followed, after we adapted our behavioral mapping to messaging for the pandemic, other conversations were had. We talked to public health departments and organizations across the country about applying this strategy to navigate conspiracy theories for other populations—Syrian refugees, gang-involved youth, homeless encampments, Latin-X immigrants, libertarians in Washington state—before the lockdown protests, George Floyd’s murder, international outcry, protests, and political uprising. The exercise became seismology of semiotics. Exploring fault lines beneath the Fractured States in America, trembling.\