How do we preserve social order and institutions when something so unexpected happens?

Lawrence Wright
Knopf/AP

My new novel, The End of October, which comes out next month, is a work of imagination. The book is not prophecy, but its appearance in the middle of the worst pandemic in living memory is not entirely coincidental, either. It began with a simple question from filmmaker Ridley Scott, who had read Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and asked me: “What happened?” How could human civilisation become so broken? How could we fail to preserve the institutions and social order that define us when we are confronted with something unexpected – a catastrophe that in retrospect seems all but inevitable?

This is not the outcome I anticipate for the current Covid-19 pandemic. In writing my book, however, I’ve come to appreciate that we would be naive and prideful to believe we have escaped the snares of disease that nature is constantly devising.

I’ve been accused of being uncannily prescient before. In 1998, The Siege, a movie I co-wrote (with director Ed Zwick and his writing partner Menno Meyjes), addressed a similar question: what would happen if terrorism came to America, as it already had to London and Paris, not to mention Tel Aviv, Israel. What if it happened in New York? The movie, which starred Denzel Washington and Annette Bening, supposed that radical Islamists were behind the attacks. It was a box office bust, but after 9/11 it became one of the most rented movies in America.

Denzel Washington and Annette Bening in 'The Siege' (20th Century Fox/Kobal/Rex)

It felt a little creepy to have imagined an awful future that went on to become an even more awful reality. Now, as I read the papers and watch the news, I have that same unsettled sensation of revisiting scenes that I have already written. I’m constantly judging what I got right and what I missed entirely. For instance, quarantine plays a big role in my novel; the virus breaks out during the hajj, and Mecca, with 3 million pilgrims, is sealed off. I worried that these scenes would come off as unrealistic – until China put 11 million people in Wuhan on lockdown. Now governments around the world are trying to enforce similar draconian measures.

What may seem like prophecy is actually the fruit of research. As a writer, I’ve always been more surprised by reality than by imagination, so I try to hew to science, history and human experience.

Pandemics — like wars and economic depressions, with which they often coincide — leave scars on the body of history

In both The Siege and The End of October, I examined what had happened in similar episodes in the past. I spoke to experts who could guide me to create a plausible narrative – from facts that would resonate with the fiction on the screen and on the page. Pandemics – like wars and economic depressions, with which they often coincide – leave scars on the body of history. So much of the story of civilisation has been about our struggle to survive in close quarters with one another, which allows pathogens to proliferate. As some of the most fearsome communicable diseases of the past – polio, typhus, cholera, yellow fever – have been tamed or eliminated, they have receded from the awful prominence they once held in human affairs.

50m

people killed by the plague in the sixth century

Plague killed perhaps 50 million people during the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, about half the world’s population at the time. The next plague pandemic, known as the Black Death, was the deadliest in human history, arising in China in 1334 and stalking the trade routes of central Asia and Europe until it subsided 200 years later. Smallpox, one of the most infectious diseases on record, killed about 400,000 people a year in Europe alone, and of the survivors, about a third became blind.

The scourge did not abate until 1796, when an English doctor named Edward Jenner realised that milkmaids seemed immune to the disease. He theorised that they had been protected by their exposure to cowpox, a similar disease found in cattle but not fatal in humans. To test his theory, he took a sample of cowpox from a farm girl named Sarah Nelmes and injected it into his gardener’s nine-year-old son. Months later, Jenner injected the boy with smallpox as well. When the boy failed to become infected, a new age in medicine was born.

As I researched my novel, I realised how close we had come in recent times to facing an existential disease threat. One of the heroes of public health was Carlo Urbani, an Italian doctor who specialised in parasitic illnesses. He devoted himself to fighting flatworms in children living along the Mekong river.

In February 2003, he received a call from the French hospital in Hanoi, where a dangerously ill patient had arrived from Hong Kong. Antibiotics were ineffective. Doctors and nurses in the hospital were falling ill. (Altogether the man infected 80 people, including more than half the medical workers who cared for him.)

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