When I asked my husband for Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven for Christmas, I don’t think I’d heard of the coronavirus yet. I like dark novels and have often found that reading about the worst of things makes me feel better about my everyday. Station Eleven did not disappoint, especially because the way the structure flips quickly enough back and forth between the panic of a rapidly-spreading pandemic and the life that continues (in its own way) in the way after meant I didn’t have to bear the “what if we all die” feeling that some books carry. So it was dangerous, but not too much so. It’s a very satisfying read overall with strong characters and a fresh take on life after the apocalypse. I loved the way the threads of the story eventually came together.
If you’re at all afraid, I would not suggest you read this book right now, but do put it on your list for later.
What Station Eleven Taught Me About Now
- Be prepared. I do not feel the need to pack seven carts full of groceries into my home the way that Jeevan did, but we have set aside enough food and essentials that we’ll be okay if we have to self-quarantine for a couple of weeks. I’ve since read that having a little (not a crazy amount) of back-stock on hand can also help ease supply chain problems for others later.
- Books matter. Not that I needed to be taught this, but the way that Kirsten clings to her copy of Dr. Eleven is an important reminder that we cling to things that make us feel civilized. And for good reason. I’ve read more prepper guides in the last month than I’ll admit, but the things that always come back to me are how humanizing small luxuries like a beloved chocolate bar or a great shower can be when we feel at our worst.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
By the time I finished Station Eleven, the news of a coronavirus in China felt distant enough that I picked up the copy of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History that my neighbor had given me as we were exchanging Thanksgiving dishes. I don’t normally read nonfiction, certainly not of the historical reportage type, but I figured if I was ever going to read that book, it would/should be after finishing Station Eleven. I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot about how viruses work and about what can go wrong in a society during a pandemic. There was far too much minutia about individual doctors for my taste, but I appreciate the work they did.
I do not believe that we are in for anything nearly as bad as the Spanish Flu, but I do think there are lessons from that time that can help us minimize the spread and mortality of COVID-19.
What The Great Influenza Taught Me About Now
- Infections come in waves. There were actually two infection periods for the Spanish Flu, and those who were exposed to the first were mostly immune to (or at least suffered far less from) the second.
- Viruses mutate over time. As they emerge in the human population, they are not necessarily at their most dangerous (the first spring wave of the Spanish Flu was not as lethal as the later wave), but they do mutate and over time “virulence stabilizes and even recedes”. You can read more about how this might be working with COVID-19 here.
- Quarantine and self isolation helps. Not only are you limiting your potential avenues for transmission by self-isolating (before or after being infected), you are giving the disease time to mutate into something less lethal.
- We are lucky to have already identified COVID-19. The Spanish Flu was not conclusively even identified as an influenza until much after the epidemic. Today researchers are working directly with an identified pathogen and trying to develop tests and a vaccine, rather than spending years trying to figure out what the disease even is.
- Accurate information saves lives. During the Spanish Flu, the media in San Francisco likely saved lives by sharing accurate, unvarnished information with local citizens. This is a big worry for me at a country level because the president is more interested in his ego than in getting people the information they need to prepare. I’m looking directly to resources I trust, like King County Public Health and this map from Johns Hopkins, for my updates.
- Large public gatherings are a bad idea during times of contagion. There were far too many stories in this book of public officials who were warned to cancel large events and did not. If you’re interested in specifics on how that affected mortality, this is interesting. We aren’t currently avoiding the grocery story (despite the general zombie vibe there) or daycare (the source of all contagion, really), but my workplace is closed and I’ll be skipping this spring’s slew of arts fundraising events.
The Ungrateful Refugee
This book by Dina Nayeri was an essential read for our time before the novel coronavirus. I’m still immersed in its pages, but the way she combines the memoir of her own experience as a refugee with the research she did as a new mother into the refugee waves of now is deeply artful and deeply humanizing. Her writing is as beautiful as her introspection.
What The Ungrateful Refugee Taught Me About Now
- It is always easy to turn inwards and see only your own experience. It is especially important in times of crisis that we do not, to the extent that we are able.
- The more we connect with others, the better we will see ourselves. When Nayeri sees a girl in a refugee camp who will not remove her pink backpack, she sees her own trauma and the need to cling to the one thing that feels like stability. And in reading about it I see ways I am paralyzing myself when I most need to find grace.
- Every human deserves and wants dignity. The more we treat each other with dignity, the more we will all respond with it in kind. The way my husband described how people are treating our grocery store clerks is abhorrent. We’re all humans on this planet. If you can afford to give someone a smile or a kind word, please do.
I actually haven’t started re-reading The Plague, so I’m not certain it’s the best thing to turn to at this exact moment, but I do recall that I read it during a particularly dark time of my life and I was very much reassured by the way Camus highlighted what Mr. Rogers would call “the helpers,” the people who went out of their way to make sure that society survived.
What The Plague Taught Me About Now
- There is good in and around us. Look for it.
- Do what you can to help others.
Anything that Gives You Pleasure
The one thing I very much have stockpiled in anticipation of being at home for the duration is books. I started with an indulgently large order from Powell’s and then let myself go hog wild at the AWP virtual book fair where hundreds of small presses are selling their wares, often at a wonderful discount. Read or watch anything that reminds you that COVID is only part of life.
Other Things I’m Thinking About
- Kids are generally less vulnerable. According to this piece on NPR, kids go through so very many COVIDs early in life that they are not at risk now. This has to be a relief for any parent.
- The digital age has added some layers of protection and stripped away others. It’s nice that many people can work from home. I wish that everyone could (or could get paid in absentia). I did wake up in a cold panic the other morning with the realization that if my husband and I both died (highly unlikely, but tell my anxiety that), my son would have no way of contacting the people who can take care of him because he doesn’t have a relationship with our phones.
- Panic is paralyzing; avoid it at all costs. There are hashtags on Twitter that I won’t click anymore because the fear has already taken people way beyond a functional place. If you’re scared about something concrete, like not having a list of emergency numbers on paper somewhere handy, fix it and try to move on. Turning off the voices of panic from outside the house is not the worst idea, either (she tells herself).
- Supplies are available in places other than grocery stores. We’ve been ordering nonperishables (again, only a week or two ahead) from Target. It saves us from going out and also lets people who need to get things more immediately have some hope of finding them on a nearby shelf. Free shipping over $35, but you want a week’s lead time.
- Related, small businesses will be hurt hardest if people are no longer out and about. Make the choices you need to for your family, but if you’re going out, eating out, or stocking up, spend that money at the stores you love when you can. E.g., Third Place Books is offering free shipping through March 13.
- Also avoiding full isolation. I don’t mean in a physical sense. If your fear/worry/general busyness has kept you from contacting your loved ones, try a text or a call. I’d planned to write some “COVID missives” to pen-pals I’ve neglected before I started writing this post (and I still will, here eventually).
- Finding joy, even if in alternate universes. My husband and I have immersed ourselves in as many comedies as we can in the evenings, but the most effective panacea has been streaming a favorite design show from the UK in the 2000s. It feels good to immerse myself in something that isn’t about disease at all. And as part of our prepping, we have a new set of soccer nets arriving soon, JIC daycare finally closes.
- How important (and easy) it is to wash those hands. Around here we sing “Wash, wash, wash your hands, get them nice and clean. Scrub the bottoms and the tops and fingers in between” twice to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
I wish you health and peace of mind. If I read anything particularly interesting while shut in, I’ll share it with you here.