From Decameron to Contagion: pandemics in fiction

Picture of a wall and soldiers blocking a group of civilians who have been infected with the virus. Description of epidemics in history and science fiction.
Pandemics in fiction.

At present, the potential consequences of the COVID-19 disease are much discussed. 

  • The fear of the an epidemic is deep rooted in human societies. 
  • Our understanding of events and expectations for the future springs from our shared memory.

One of the oldest fictional works to deal with this fear is Decameron (c. 1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio. The story takes place in Italy during the time of the Black Death. A few young people flee from plague ridden Florence, and stay for two weeks in a secluded place. At night they tell each other stories. 

The purpose of storytelling was not only to celebrate life, but also a way escape the danger of infection. In the 14th century people believed that entertainment; singing, dancing and laughing, made people less susceptible to the plague.

For a long time in cultural history, infectious diseases and plagues had been interpreted as punishment of God for disobedience or corruption of men. 

But Decameron is unusual because Boccaccio does not take a personal stance on the causes of the plague. He describes only the effects of the disease on society in Florence. Essentially, how residents go on ignoring traditional laws and customs while battling to survive the plague.

The discovery of bacteria and viruses

Boccaccio, however, could not know that the cause of black death were tiny organisms, bacteria (Yersinia pestis). Bacteria had not yet been discovered when the book was written. 

It was not until 300 years later, in 1676, that the first bacteria was observed by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). This changed people's attitudes to infectious diseases. The enemy was no longer the disease itself, but the tiny microbes that could be seen in microscopes, a variety of bacteria that could cause infections and diseases.

But bacteria are not the only pathogens that can cause havoc, viruses are even smaller and were more difficult to observe. The first evidence of the existence of viruses was presented in 1892. 

Dmitri Ivanovsky (1864-1920) used filters that were small enough to retain bacteria, to demonstrate that sap from a diseased tobacco plant remained infectious even after it had been filtered. 

While bacteria are single-celled organisms that can exist independently of other cells, since the discovery of viruses scientists have debated whether viruses can be considered living creatures. Today, scientists agree that viruses do not qualify as being alive. Viruses are actually inert unless they enter a living cell.

British biologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar (1915-1987) has said that a virus is a piece of bad news wrapped in protein. On science websites, viruses are often described as genetic material wrapped in protein capsules, unable to reproduce themselves, but infect living host cells and disrupt their activity by creating new viruses instead of regular cell activities.

Human-made viruses

In her essays Illness as Metaphor, American philosopher Susan Sontag (1933-2004) argues that after the discovery of viruses and bacteria, the similarities to warfare became more prominent in medicine. The virus attacks the cells like an enemy attacks a fortress.

But what kind of war is this? As the virus is not alive, it is difficult to think of it as an enemy soldier with a conscious plan. The virus's intent is not directly evil, just a script that it unconsciously and inevitably follows.

It is interesting that computer programs have been given this name adapted from virology. Similar to the virus, the computer virus is little more than programmed instructions on how to use other people's computers to spread. There, however, the instructions are based on the intent of the programmer.

In a number of novels this is exactly the case. Human viruses threaten the global population. The t-virus in the video game series Resident Evil and various literature. 

One such book has been recently discussed in connection with COVID-19 pandemic. A novel from 1981, The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz. It describes a chemical weapon developed in a laboratory just outside the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2020. 

The weapon is called the Wuhan 400, and when people become infected with the virus, they don't last 24 hours. The mortality rate of the virus is just under 100% and therefore significantly higher than the actual pandemic that originated in Wuhan. According to a new study, COVID-19 fatality rate is estimated to be 1.38% of those infected.

It may be convenient to give a virus such a meaning, to perceive it is the evil intent of humans that causes distress. Perhaps it is precisely its meaninglessness that makes viruses as threatening as they actually are. 

Can't the virus then be imagined as pure evil, unintentional or intentional? Once again the pandemic is perceived as a divine punishment by many. The virus is seen as a demon or a thug, a tiny fraction of Satan himself in the human world.

The fear of anarchy

However, it is not necessarily the virus itself that is the greatest threat to society, but the fear itself. In some cases, rather than to start to inhibit the spread of the virus, authorities decide it is more prudent to inhibit the spread of fear first. 

In the most famous epidemic novel of the 20th century, The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus (1913-1960), a doctor, Dr. Bernard Rieux, is the main protagonist. He tries to convince authorities that the plague is spreading over the Algerian city of Oran where he lives, but he is ignored - until the news is impossible to deny. 

This is little reminiscent of the Chinese response in December. Li Wenliang (1986-2020), a Wuhan hospital doctor, warned the public about the new coronavirus early in the year and received a warning from the Chinese authorities; the police asked him to stop distributing gossip stories. 

What the authorities fear when an epidemic spreads is of course anarchy and a state of societal dissolution. In many cases these fears are justified; both the public and politicians, prefer to secure their own survival during an emergency rather than working together. 

This is one of the most frequent cultural consequence during epidemics and outbreaks of infectious diseases.

The laws of the jungle

In films such as Children of Men (2006), 12 Monkeys (1995) and 28 Days Later (2002), the epidemic has overthrown the existence of man and the power balance of society has eroded. A recurring theme is how the government loses its grip, all ethics and humanity disappear, and jungle laws take over.

Namely, the virus makes every person a potential carrier. Transforms him into a walking virus. The threat become other people. The fear of other people is best depicted in zombie movies. It has been noted that such supernatural plagues have come into being just when medical science was depriving epidemics of the mystery they had previously been veiled in. 

In most such images, from the first works of Georges Romero (1940-2017), the father of zombie films, the abject human-like zombie threat is on the surface, but it is the lack of sympathy for the living is what prevents them from surviving.

Control of the human body

When an epidemic starts, people are often instructed to keep away from each other, minimize contact and remain in isolation from each other. Authorities take much more control than usual, as they have to establish a discipline that keeps people at a distance from one another, creating an exceptional societal situation that is ongoing for the time being. 

The community is virtually shut down. For example, the novel Moonstone: The Boy who Never was (2013) by Sjón describes how the city authorities stop film screenings during the Spanish flu in 1918 Reykjavik. 

It is worth pointing out the thesis of Kristín María Kristinsdóttir in general literature, where she writes about the destructive properties of the plague in Moonstone and two other literary works.

The films in Moonstone are also symbols of foreign influence, the threat from the outside, which must be avoided. This happens repeatedly in epidemic times. 

Society is brought together on a basis of a hostility to the outsider, and more often than not it is unhealthy. This is only a few examples of how we name diseases by specific places and nations; the Spanish flu, the Wuhan Virus. 

Prejudice against Asians has increased around the world in connection with COVID-19 as happened when the avian flu raged at the beginning of the millennium.

Viruses and globalization

As the community becomes a stronghold that no outsider can access, every person has to be shut down. But the most terrible thing about viruses is that direct contact is even unnecessary.

One of the films that describe the spread and consequences of deadly viral infections in the 21st century is Contagion (2011) starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. 

A virus travels with a cough through the air, is capable to survive on surfaces, hands and face. The virus enters the body easily and infects cells. The film recently returned to the top list of most popular digital video rental and streaming services, 10 years after the release.

Viruses that attack the respiratory tract in particular are modern threat. In a globalized world where an incredible number of people travel across the world at any given moment, the pathways of infection are innumerable and the speed of dissemination can be staggering. 

At least in human imagination, as depicted in fiction, to fight a virus all pathways of contact should be blocked, and the body shut down. Every cell should become a fortress that a virus cannot enter, and hence every individual should be a fortress. Communities at times of pandemics become such fortresses.