I suppose it has happened to us all at one point or another. The moment when it occurs to you that you are living in the sort of dystopia that linger in the popular imagination. Perhaps you sense that some sort of Big Brother is watching over you, or that you are enveloped in a kind of Matrix.
Sometime in March 2020, during the second week of my COVID-19 confinement, a friend emailed an amusing Venn diagram. It depicted twelve overlapping circles, each representing a popular dystopia. All the famous ones were there: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies. In the small area where they all intersected, ‘You are here’ was written. And we are there indeed—living through all these nightmares simultaneously. ‘In the middle of the journey of our life,’ Dante wrote in The Divine Comedy, ‘I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.’
“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile”, notes the narrator in Camus’s The Plague, and these days, we have a decent sense of what he meant. A society in quarantine is literally a ‘closed society’. People cease working, they stop meeting their friends and relatives, they quit driving their cars, and they put their lives on hold.
The one thing that we absolutely cannot stop doing is talking about the virus that threatens to change our world forever. We are imprisoned in our homes, haunted by fear, boredom and paranoia. Benevolent (and not-so-benevolent) governments closely follow where we go and whom we meet, determined to protect us both from our own recklessness and the recklessness of our fellow citizens. Unsanctioned walks in the park may elicit fines or even time in jail, and contact with other people has become a threat to our very existence. The unsolicited touching others is tantamount to betrayal. As Camus observed, the plague erased the ‘uniqueness of each man’s life’ as it heightened each person’s awareness of his vulnerability and powerlessness to plan for the future. After an epidemic, all those still living are survivors. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a classic ‘grey swan event’—highly probable and capable of turning our world upside down, but nonetheless a huge shock when it arrives. In 2004, the US National Intelligence Council predicted that ‘it is only a matter of time before a new pandemic appears, such as the 1918–19 influenza virus that killed an estimated 20 million worldwide’, and that such an occurrence could ‘put a halt to global travel and trade during an extended period, prompting governments to expend enormous resources on overwhelmed health sectors’. In a 2015 TED Talk, Bill Gates predicted not only a global epidemic of a highly infectious virus, but also warned us that we were unprepared to respond to it. Hollywood also presented us with its own blockbuster ‘warnings’. But it is no accident that there are no grey swans in Swan Lake; ‘grey swans’ are an example of something predictable yet unthinkable.
Although great epidemics are, in fact, not such rare occurrences, for some reason their arrival always surprises us. They reset our world in a similar way to wars and revolutions, yet these other things stamp themselves on our collective memory in a way that epidemics somehow do not. In her marvellous book Pale Rider, the British science writer Laura Spinney shows that the Spanish flu was the most tragic event in the 20th century but is now mostly forgotten. A century ago, the pandemic infected a third of the world’s, a staggering 500 million people. Between the first recorded case on 4 March 1918 and the last in March 1920, the pandemic wiped out between 50 and 100 million people. In terms of loss of life from single events, it surpassed both the First World War (17 million dead) and the Second World War (60 million dead) and may have killed as many people as both wars put together. Yet as Spinney notes, ‘When asked what was the biggest disaster of the 20th century, almost nobody answers the Spanish flu.’ More surprisingly, even historians seem to have forgotten the epidemic. In 2017, WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalogue, listed roughly 80,000 books on the First World War (in more than forty languages) but barely 400 on the Spanish flu (in five languages). How can it be that an epidemic that killed at least five times more people than died in the First World War has resulted in 200 times fewer books? Why do we remember wars and revolutions but forget pandemics, even though the latter change our economies, politics, societies and urban architecture just as fundamentally?
Spinney believes that one key reason is that it is easier to count those killed by bullets than those who die from a virus, and the present controversy regarding the mortality rate of COVID-19 seems to prove that she was right. The other reason is that it is difficult to turn a pandemic into a good story. In 2015, the psychologists Henry Roediger and Magdalena Abel of Washington University in Missouri, suggested that people tend only to remember ‘a small number of salient events’ from any situation, namely those ‘referring to beginning, turning and end points.’ It is very hard to tell the story of the Spanish flu (or of any other great epidemic, for that matter) with this narrative structure; epidemics are like orphans, in that we never can be wholly sure of their origin, and also like Netflix series, where the end of one season is merely a hiatus before the next one. The relationship between the epidemic and war resembles the relationship between some modernist literature and the classical novel: it lacks a clear plot. For how long will we remember the horror we felt in the first week of the pandemic, when somebody next to us on a public transport was coughing and spluttering? For how long will we recall waking up in the night to check that a family member is still breathing properly? Our inability, or perhaps our unwillingness, to remember epidemics might also have something to do with our general aversion to random death and suffering. The meaninglessness of arbitrary pain is hard to bear; the victims of the current epidemic suffer not only a tragic demise because they are unable to breathe, but also because nobody can really explain the meaning of their death.
May 28, 2020.
First published in IWMpost 125.
Ivan Krastev is a Permanent Fellow at the IWM, Vienna, as well as Chair of the Board of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. He is the author of The Light That Failed: A Reckoning (2019, with Stephen Holmes). His latest German publication Ist heute schon morgen? Wie die Pandemie Europa verändert [translated by Karin Schuler], which will be published by Ullstein on June 15, is based on his widely acclaimed article “Seven Lessons from the Corona Crisis”.
 Albert Camus, The Plague (New York, Vintage, 1991), p.183.
 Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (London, Random House, 2017).