As I write this, the radio morning show is doing a “streeter,” talking to people in the ByWard Market as COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario ease. Non-essential businesses are opening again, with limited capacity: stores, restaurants, bars, summer camps and others. People who speak with the radio reporters express relief, even joy at the ability to socialize again.
While the pandemic is not over yet, we can expect the end coming soon. With millions of vaccines going into arms around the world (with expected limitations in poorer countries), and daily infection statistics on a downward trend, it’s reasonable to expect a “return to normal.” Except I hope that not everything returns to pre-COVID status. I’d like to see higher pay for people we recognize as “essential,” such as retail and agricultural workers. I’d like to see full paid sick leave for all. And I’d like to see a continued focus on public health over private wealth. I wrote about this last year.
Another thing I wonder about are the books that will be written about the pandemic. Interestingly, books about previous pandemics were mostly written long after the events. Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year sixty years after the London plague it describes. Albert Camus’ The Plague was published in 1947, but was based on an epidemic in Oran, Algeria in 1849.
There seem to be more books about fictional plagues: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, I am Legend by Richard Matheson, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and, of course, Stephen King’s The Stand, just to name a few.
And let’s not forget the whole zombie plague genre in books, graphic novels, movies and TV; Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, World War Z, for example.
Looking in the rear-view mirror
The pandemic has changed just about every aspect of our lives. When watching TV, I feel sqeamish when when I see actors closer than two metres. It’s hard to imagine that COVID-19 will not be reflected in books and stories in the coming year.
I know of at least one memoir about the impact of the pandemic that’s coming this fall. And my own work-in-progress is my first foray into a post-apocalyptic near-future narrative. I’m trying to look at today in the rear-view mirror. Which means that the pandemic we’re in right now is going to be something in my characters’ history.
One thing we can tell looking in the rear-view mirror today is how technological advance affects the smallest details of our lives. The growth of the internet changed how we watch television. Now we binge-watch whole seasons. No more gathering in the staff room to discuss last night’s episode of Lost and speculate on where the plot is going.
Cars changed houses, cities, travel, work, economies, even romance—just about every aspect of life. Ease of travel changed the food we eat. I remember getting tangerines only in December when I was growing up. (I told you I was old.)
I got a lot of vaccinations, thankfully. I cannot see it anymore, but I do remember the oval mark on my upper arm, the memento of a smallpox vaccination.
The measles shot came along just a little too late for me; I got the rash and the fever coming home one day in Grade 1. (Now you know how old I am.) What I mostly remember is three weeks at home, playing with some new toy cars and a big, multi-coloured pack of plasticine modelling clay.
What will COVID-19 look like in 2050? How will children then think of it?
The Black Death killed half of Europe and transformed society. Some historians say it led to the end of serfdom in western Europe and opened the way for the Renaissance. Will today’s pandemic transform major aspects of our society?
Will distance learning be a permanent and standard part of schools? What about work: “knowledge workers” working from home is a trend that began over a decade ago, enabled by high-speed internet connections.
That’s a trend that began with widespread high-speed internet connections. Will the pandemic accelerate it? If it does, will our homes change, too? What about the “work-life balance”? Will work and life merge?
Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of books about the near future. Not all of them were post-apocalyptic, but many were. His conception of the future has been described as “just like today, but worse.”
Will we learn from this pandemic? Will we repeat the same mistakes in the next pandemic? Will we make new mistakes?
It’s a tangled exercise. It can be fun. It can be terrifying.
One way or another, as our lives move from the windshield into the rear-view mirror, it’s going to be fascinating.