Stephen King. What can I say? I grew up reading or listening to his books and watching his movies.
I sometimes go years without going there. Then there are times when I binge on book after book. By King’s own admission, some of his books are more gripping and substantial than others.
Apropos of nothing, one that stuck with me over the years is “The Stand.” In case you missed it, the book starts with a super flu epidemic nicknamed Captain Trips that wipes out most of the human race.
Then things really get bad.
On a more literary level, one of my favorite novels is “The Plague” by Albert Camus. I’ve mentioned it more than once here. It’s about an epidemic in Oran, Algeria, around 1940, when the country was still under French control. And the disease is a metaphor for life in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The plague basically takes over the lives of everyone. People are separated from loved ones and feel totally confined and cut off from the rest of the world. Everything changes, including the sense of time.
In both books, the epidemic requires people to make moral decisions. In “The Stand,” it’s a pretty stark choice between good and evil. One of the more interesting aspects of Camus’ novel is how he shows the different ways people respond to the situation. Some unlikely people respond with quiet heroism, while others seem to profit or thrive from the epidemic.
For obvious reasons, those books have been on my mind lately. First though, let me say that the current situation is nowhere near these literary extremes and I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere close to them.
But I think the situation does require a response from us. Probably the worst things we can do now are either to politicize the coronavirus outbreak (as in “Fake news. SAD”) or spread hysteria, which may entail taking a deep breath or two and stepping away from the TV set every now and then.
So how should individuals and communities respond to the latest developments? I have a few ideas:
n Take reasonable, evidence-based steps to protect ourselves, pay attention to the latest recommendations and try to cooperate with the reasonable directions of health authorities, even if it can be a pain in the rear.
n If necessary, do what you can to nudge public officials to step up and do all they can to respond and prepare for the future if the virus spreads.
n Take Mr. Rogers’ advice and “look for the helpers.”
n Put things in perspective: It’s not like we were immortal before coronavirus came around. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between Oct. 1, 2019, and Feb. 29, 2020, there have been an estimated 20,000 to 52,000 deaths from “regular” flu in the U.S. Worldwide, somewhere between 291,000 and 646,000 die annually from seasonal flu.
In a normal year, 40,000 Americans die from auto accidents. It’s been estimated that sugary drinks kill over 180,000 people per year. According to the DHHR website, 300,000 deaths per year are related to obesity. The CDC reports that 480,000 Americans die each year due to cigarette smoking. Worldwide, tobacco kills around seven million people per year.
Ever notice how we don’t panic about some things while we freak out at things that are much less likely to kill us?
n Let’s not recreate past mistakes. Sometimes events like this make people search for someone to blame or some vulnerable group to target. During the Black Death of the mid 1300s, Christians blamed the plague on Jews, who were accused of poisoning wells. This unleashed horrific persecution throughout Europe. The “enemy” is a virus, not other people.
n This could be a reminder of how interconnected people are all over the world. Sometimes I think that very wealthy people, for example, think they can insulate themselves and their children from the effects of their actions on others, whether it’s the damage done by extreme inequality or climate change.
Sticking with the literature of epidemics, that was a theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which Prince Prospero and his aristocratic friends party in apparent safety while an epidemic raged outside their walls. It didn’t work out very well for them.
There may be a lesson in that. As Bob Marley sang, “When the rain falls, it don’t fall on one man’s house.”
n This could also be a reminder of how important things like paid sick days, universal health care, universal basic income and out-of-school food programs for children are. We have a lot of unfinished business.
n But the main one is not to stop living or being human or showing compassion to others out of fear. Shakespeare’s “Henry V” observed that “we owe God a death,” but let’s not die while we’re still breathing.
Meanwhile, I think I’m in the mood for some Blue Oyster Cult music. I’m gonna crank up “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and enjoy the cowbell.