As reality becomes surreal...

Topics Coronavirus | books | movies

In Ling Ma's novel Severance, an outbreak of Shen fever from Shenzhen in China turns New York into a zombie city and face-masks, designer ones for the rich, become the new normal. Dean Koontz’s The Eyes Of Darkness is getting renewed attention — the book mentions a deadly virus, Wuhan 400, which he described as a “severe pneumonia-like illness” that spreads attacking “lungs and bronchial tubes” and “resisting all known treatments”.

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion tracks the outbreak of a virus from Hong Kong, which goes on to cause a pandemic and societal collapse. In one scene, Kate Winslet’s character, while interacting with a health official whose wife “douses everything in hand sanitiser”, parrots the advice currently doing the rounds: “...stop touching your face, Dave.”

In Outbreak (1995), director Wolfgang Petersen focuses on an outbreak of a fictional ebola-like virus and speculates how far military and civilian agencies may go to contain the spread of a deadly disease. Both Contagion and Outbreak are currently high on watchlist on streaming services. Nothing spreads like fear!

Indeed, a compelling dystopian fiction reflects the unnerving reality of our world. The fear is not only about the virus but also how humans respond to the challenge. Panic and anxiety show our ugly face — profiteering off face masks, hand sanitiser, soaps, and even toilet paper, hoarding by customers and shopkeepers alike, and running out of hospitals without considering the threat of infection to others, to say the least.

“Pandemic fiction does not offer readers a prophetic look into the future, regardless of what some may think. Instead, narratives about contagious disease hold up a mirror to our deepest, most inchoate fears about our present moment and explore different possible responses to those fears,” writes Katherine Shwetz, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, on The Conversation.

The current situation also leads us to imagine a new dystopian future. As coronavirus keeps people in several countries, including India (Janata curfew on Sunday), confined to their homes for weeks, or maybe months, there will be a reorientation of our relationship with the government, with other nation and nationals (fear and contempt of foreigners — Chinese are already facing this in several parts of the world. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly called coronavirus the “Chinese virus”), and even one another.

Will we become an increasingly closed society? Will touching someone become a taboo? Will we prefer the safety of our homes? “We know now that touching things, being with other people and breathing the air in an enclosed space can be risky...It could become second nature to recoil from shaking hands or touching our faces — and we may all heir to society-wide OCD (obsessive–compulsive disorder),” Deborah Tannen, author and professor of linguistics, was quoted as saying in Politico.

Many others apprehend the pandemic could end our romance with market society and the world could turn toward authoritarianism. Unlikely, hopefully.

Pandemics put the focus on how our individual bodies are connected to our collective body.

In Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, the antagonist —  a cult leader — denies his fundamental connection to those around him and claims he and his followers survived the epidemic because of their divine goodness. He engages in violent, abusive behaviours intended to quash the fear associated with interdependence, but in the end, the leader doesn’t survive. The surviving characters were all those who accepted that they cannot extricate themselves from others. Social distancing doesn’t mean being socially cut-off.

The real drama of the novel doesn’t come from gore or gun battles, but from the protagonists’ reckoning with just how much they have lost.

And this reminds me of Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police — a novel set up in an unnamed and isolated island where, one by one, things disappear from daily life. The losses at the start were small and insignificant — like ribbons, bells, perfume. In our case, it may be quick service restaurants first stopping dine-in facility for a few days amid the pandemic and less footfall. Then they stop free delivery, and then come job losses.

One by one, dinner plans, get-togethers, and vacations, all vanish. Reading dystopian novels and watching such movies arguably create paranoia in minds of those already in isolation or facing a lockdown. Missing out on a pizza or suspending a vacation should not be a worry when the world is witnessing deaths in hundreds every day because of the pandemic.

But as reality becomes surreal, we must understand that fiction doesn’t give us a blueprint of the future. But it can always show warning signs of what to avoid. Humans are social animals and if staying indoors and social distancing, extremely necessary in the time of coronavirus, become a long-term measure and a way of life, these will cost our society a lot. And no amount Netflix binge-watching or social media will be enough.

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