Last year, I published a novel about a mysterious, highly contagious virus that suddenly surfaces in an American town. In the book ("The Dreamers"), there is no treatment and no vaccine. The sickness is too new for scientists to fully understand. A college campus is quickly closed. A hospital is overrun by a surge of patients. Officials scramble to respond, with increasingly draconian measures, as cases rise precipitously. The stores in nearby Los Angeles even run out of facemasks. Eventually, the government cuts an entire town off from the rest of the world in hopes of halting the spread. Meanwhile, some people insist that the whole thing is just some kind of hoax.
I wrote this story based on a lot of research and from the comfort of a time and a place where no such threat was raging. (And for the record, it differs in many ways from our current circumstance — my imaginary virus is a sleeping sickness that triggers extraordinary dreams in its victims.)
Fast forward 18 months: On Feb. 28, I texted my friend who is a doctor to ask her what she thought about this new coronavirus thing. I had just read that Japan had closed all of its schools for a month. It seemed shocking, but my thoughts were still on disruption rather than danger — if schools closed here, how could we possibly entertain our two rambunctious daughters for so many weeks on end? Days are long with young children, and scented markers and iPads only get a parent so far.
On that day (though she might have a different answer now), my doctor friend responded that influenza scared her much more than COVID-19, largely because influenza can be so dangerous for young children. She thought we were a long way from anything like school closures in the U.S.
At first, I was simply relieved.
By that afternoon, though, an uneasy feeling had bloomed in me: My brilliant friend was the medical expert, certainly, but I was the one who had spent four years imagining how people and governments might respond to a frightening and unfamiliar contagious disease. I suddenly realized that I was in possession of an unwanted, uncanny expertise. And my feeling was this: Our schools were going to close.
Two weeks later, on Friday, it happened.
I am often asked what drew me to write about contagion, and my answer has been very much on my mind during these dark days: The truth is that there is a kind of stunning intimacy in contagion, the way the map of a virus is also a map of our social bonds, a kind emotional, social cartography of humanity, or as I put it in the book: “This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as does fondness and friendship and love.” The guy who lives alone in a remote cabin in the woods will never contract the coronavirus, but what else, we have to wonder, might he also be missing?
"There is a kind of stunning intimacy in contagion, the way the map of a virus is also a map of our social bonds, a kind emotional, social cartography of humanity."
At one point in my book, a new father, with his baby strapped to his chest, finds a way to look through the window of a makeshift ward just to lay eyes on his stricken, unconscious wife. Last week, pictures emerged from Seattle showing relatives of quarantined nursing home residents doing just that.
When we saw those pictures, my husband reminded me that I got that detail for my novel from a story that his grandmother once told us about waving to her mother through the window of a tuberculous hospital, where her mother was confined for many months. This is just to say that human contagion stories — real or imagined — follow certain somewhat predictable patterns. (See also the unheeded predictions that some infectious disease specialists have been making for years about our vulnerability to a virus such as this one.)
As our current scenario unfolds, I recommend we all treat history as research, that we search it for wisdom, fortitude and solace. From Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful, complex, and ultimately inspiring study of five historical disasters, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” I learned that the word “emergency” comes from the word “emerge, to rise out of.”
“An emergency,” Solnit writes, “is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.” The stories in her book, which deeply informed my own, show that most of us do rise in this way, rather than descend to our worst selves, despite what many disaster movies (and books) would have us believe. (She also argues that these myths about how terribly others will behave can dangerously influence and justify some people’s bad behavior.)
In times of catastrophe, Solnit writes, many people report feeling a sudden and clarifying sense of purpose and generosity, a profoundly heightened sense of community.
When this current danger passes (just writing that phrase feels like a relief) and we can once again come together in person, let us aspire to bring a bit of those powerful elements with us into our ordinary, close-knit lives.
Karen Thompson Walker is the author of two novels, "The Dreamers" and "The Age of Miracles." She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon.