Right now, the Internet is awash in think pieces on the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. One year ago, the world changed overnight, but not in the ways I thought it would. By early March 2020, where I live in Washington State, it was obvious that we were on the precipice of some kind of disaster. The first documented coronavirus case in the United States had appeared just 60 miles north. I was wrapping up my certificate program, where my final project was a plan for communicating a COVID-related closure of my workplace. There were rumblings that we would need to quarantine for 2-3 weeks, so I went to the grocery store and stocked up on shelf-stable food, frozen meals, Theraflu and toilet paper. I woke up on Monday morning to discover that my office was closed until further notice.
I remember being worried about the future, afraid of contracting the virus and terrified that I wasn’t sanitizing my door handles enough. But in the back of my mind, I was also primed to expect a very specific kind of catastrophe — the kind I had seen and read about in movies and books for years.
In the 2007 movie I Am Legend, loosely based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the last human in New York City lives under constant attack from vampiric mutants infected by a re-engineered measles virus. In the 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a troupe of Shakespearean actors travels on foot between isolated communities after a flu pandemic has wiped out much of humanity. Without a real global epidemic in recent memory, these were my templates of what to expect in a pandemic: a fast-moving virus devastates the world overnight, society crumbles, and the survivors are left to wander the wasteland.
This has been a very different kind of pandemic. Society didn’t collapse, but it did fray around the edges as we confronted a chronically under-resourced public health system, political divisions between those who believed the virus was a threat and those who dismissed its severity as hundreds of thousands of people died, and systems of inequality that insulated those with privilege from dangerous exposure to the epidemic at the expense of marginalized groups who were already at higher risk of complications. It may not have been the apocalypse as we imagined it in works of fiction, but it exposed our vulnerability and exacted a terrible cost in human life and livelihood.
Everything is different now. Physical reminders of the reality of this pandemic are scattered around our house. There’s a pile of freshly laundered cloth face masks on top of our dresser. I keep an extra mask and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my car. I follow the one-way arrows in the grocery store aisles, though it feels like I’m the only one. A package of Clorox wipes, purchased at great expense in those confusing early days sits mostly untouched in a closet. The world didn’t end, but it did change.
I’ve written before about my fascination with dystopian fiction, but now that I’m living in an actual dystopia, I’ve realized that these stories don’t have to accurately predict the future to offer valuable insights. At their core, these stories aren’t about killer viruses, they’re about humanity and how we cope with the unimaginable. Our real-life pandemic isn’t over yet, but fiction can still help us imagine how we can rebuild, preserve our humanity and find hope in hopeless situations.
After a year of living under the specter of COVID-19, I could use a little hope. I think we all could.
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Jonny Eberle lives in Tacoma, WA with his wife, three typewriters, and a puppy. His fiction has been featured in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine and All Worlds Wayfarer. Read more of his short fiction, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his monthly email newsletter.