Many, many years ago, back at a small agency called Integrated Media Solutions (now integrated into Assembly at MDC), one of the agency owners thought it would be smart to put “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters around the office. My immediate smart-ass response was to purchase a “Now Panic and Freak Out” T-shirt
It’s a good thing that I still have that T-shirt, because this mentality has taken over the entire world this week as the coronavirus panic spreads across continents. My college friend who is now in Basel, Switzerland is waiting to be put on quarantine. My former co-worker in Melbourne, Australia is trying to buy supplies at the local grocery store only to find bare shelves. And here in New York, lines for Trader Joe’s are two hours long, while the Park Slope Food Coop volunteers frantically try to keep the shelves stocked. Y’all, it is not even a real apocalypse and you’re all terrifying me in your survivalist style hoarding.
I am rationally not afraid of COVID-19: Paul and I are both young-ish and in good cardiovascular shape, and this particular disease only manifests as a bad cold in 80% of the population. What is terrifying is the global response that triggers my anxiety from years of reading flupocalypse novels. I’ve read The Stand at least four times. Station Eleven captured me with the intensity of its characters and vision, an elegy for the world as we know it today. Severance struck me with the comparisons of nostalgia and routine comfort to a fatal disease. All of these are haunting novels that portray the extreme transformation of the human aspects of the world due to the spread of a highly contagious flu, and I have absorbed each of them. Hence my low grade fear and anxiety as everyday people around the world engage in preventative actions that could well be from any of these books. It is too easy for my brain to connect the coronavirus preparations being taken in NYC to plot points taken out of an apocalyptic narrative.
Most recently, I read Kimi Eisele’s The Lightest Object in the Universe, which is described as “hopeful apocalyptic fiction” for its depiction of communal living and support among neighbors. However, the book opens with a quick history of how the infrastructure fell apart, depicting a series of economic and environmental factors, including the flu, leading to the breakdown of electricity and supply chains:
Eisele’s factors are more Snow Crash than the Stand, with hyperinflation and oil supply chain breakdown. While the complete breakdown of the supply chain and power grid may be unlikely in the immediate future, the impact of the coronavirus on the world economic markets has made me feel that we are all more financially vulnerable than we would like to think we are. Seeing the impact of the virus on the world’s economies, combined with the obvious drain on the supply chain from stockpiling for quarantines, it is a reminder that the reason dystopian fiction sells so well is because we are always only two steps away from society potentially breaking down, with or without without the electrical infrastructure we’ve built on for the last century.
In the event of a breakdown of society in the U.S. though, my family unit is better poised than most to survive thanks to our experience in the Scouting and Guiding systems. I have never been worried about mine or my loved ones’ survival. Rather, I have been worried about having to deal with everyone else acting like a crazed maniac in irrational attempts to survive. Seriously, New Yorkers, you are buying bottled water and stripping stores bare over one confirmed case in Manhattan where the woman is already quarantined. Stores are sold out of what I still call “SARS masks”, even though less than half the population bothers to get a flu shot. I can’t find the statistics but I would bet money that the same people who are preparing for the flupocalypse are also not washing their hands any more frequently than before. What kind of mayhem would result if this disease had a higher mortality rate than 2.4%?
Fear of the disease has become irrelevant in the wake of the imminent disease strike in NYC though, so we’re preparing for quarantine at home. We’ll stock up on dried beans and rice, canned tuna, frozen and long-life storage vegetables. We’ll prep to work from home, or to have stores around us closed, because we can. I am more concerned for those who cannot take time off, or who cannot afford to stockpile, or both. Food pantries are worried about providing supplies to people in case of a quarantine. Care workers, especially those working with vulnerable populations like the elderly or hospitalized, are already underpaid and given little time off – is it any wonder that the outbreak in Seattle is centered around a seniors care facility? We have set up a society where we have a massive working population whose pay and vacation are so limited that they literally cannot withdraw from contact with others at the risk of food and shelter insecurity. It is meaningless to have a quarantine in a society with this level of inequality. Perhaps, after all, a societal collapse is not only imminent, but needed: a panic and freak out for the ages.