Art might seem like a luxury in a moment when retailers are trying to crack down on speculation in hand sanitizer. But literature and film can help us make sense of a world in turmoil. So as people try to reconfigure their daily lives to respond to the advancing coronavirus pandemic, they are turning to art to help them imagine the future, as people do in times of crisis.
Indeed, these works can do more than reassure us that we, too, will live — they offer portraits of people rising to meet extraordinary challenges. And in so doing, they reaffirm the values that will not merely help us through coronavirus, but that could salve, if not cure, our preexisting political condition.
The pandemics of authors’ and directors’ imaginings tend to be more medically frightening than covid-19, at least in its current form. At the same time, the behavior of these works’ protagonists is often more reassuring and more inspiring than our actual reality — certainly than the performance of our actual president. These characters serve as role models, not only for political leaders but also for ourselves.
In Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film “Contagion,” for example, the most heroic characters demonstrate both audacity and self-sacrifice, qualities sorely missing from the performance of President Trump. When one doctor becomes ill after investigating an outbreak for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, her first thoughts are for the hotel workers who might have been put in danger by changing her sheets and serving her food. Later in the movie, another physician tests a vaccine she is developing on herself rather than ask anyone else to take the chance of becoming infected. A third upends her career and life to warn the residents of a rural village that they were given placebos instead of the real vaccine.
We’ve already seen stories of great heroism from real doctors, most notably the late Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who sounded early alarms about the coronavirus in Wuhan before he was detained and silenced by Chinese authorities. But none of us needs a medical degree to practice these qualities: We can exercise them in our own small ways by taking prompt, sensible measures to protect the most vulnerable among us. And we can demand the same of our elected representatives.
Fiction can help us shape our expectations for our leaders, too. Max Brooks’s 2006 novel, “World War Z,” about a fictional plague that turns humans into zombies, is striking both for the horrors Brooks imagines and for the ingenuity his characters show in confronting them. His heroes are people who are willing to abandon their ideological preconceptions in favor of practical solutions — Israelis who shelter Palestinians, Wall Street bankers who end up leading massive government mobilization programs, anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa who work alongside former segregationists.
Brooks’s vision in “World War Z” isn’t some wishy-washy can’t-we-all-get-alongism. Instead, it’s an argument for intellectual curiosity and suppleness. The characters in “World War Z” build a new and radically different world not by following a preordained political blueprint, but by carefully examining an unprecedented problem and refusing to be constrained by the enmities of the past in pursuing solutions.
Above all, plague stories remind us that we cannot manage without community. Geraldine Brooks’s 2001 novel, “Year of Wonders,” is a testament to that very notion. It was inspired by the real history of the English village of Eyam, which quarantined itself in 1665 to protect outsiders from an outbreak of bubonic plague.
Brooks doesn’t pretend that it is an easy thing for a town to pull together to confront an epidemic of this magnitude. Her fictional version of Eyam is infected not merely by disease, but also by greed, mental illness and religious panic. But the villagers, as seen through the eyes of serving woman and healer Anna Frith, take on new roles and learn new skills as their neighbors die and those who survive are transformed by their efforts.
They assume collective responsibility for combating the plague, rather than seeing it as an act of God before which they are powerless. The hard work — “the tools and the method and the resolve” — was how “we would free ourselves,” Anna concludes. So long as that happened, it did not matter “if we were a village full of sinners or a host of saints.”
Too much of contemporary politics involves sorting people into sinners and saints. The coronavirus has given us urgent work to do together. If our differences will remain for us to resolve once that work is complete, perhaps the very act of working together will make that resolution just a little easier.