COVID-19 Q&A with Beth Dolan on 'literature of contagion'

The professor in the Department of English and a core faculty member in the Health, Medicine & Society Program explains why two novels in particular have been on her mind during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Story by

Lori Friedman

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the nation and the world, more people are consuming and engaging with entertainment and cultural content featuring infectious disease outbreaks, such as Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion and by Emily St. John Mandel 2014 science fiction novel Station Eleven.

Headshot of Beth Dolan

Beth Dolan

Beth Dolan, a professor in the Department of English and a core faculty member in the Health, Medicine & Society Program, knows a lot bit about such stories, having taught narratives about contagious diseases from the 14th-century Bubonic Plague to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in her classes, such as “The Literature of Contagion.”

She says that as the current COVID-19 pandemic intensifies and moves closer to home, two novels in particular have been on her mind—Connie Willis’s Dooms Day Book (1993) and Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago, 1998 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She explains why below. 

This Q&A is adapted from Dolan’s article in the Spring 2020 issue of the HMS Messenger

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about each book’s central story?

A: Willis’s science fiction novel Dooms Day Book depicts parallel epidemics: a viral pandemic in 2054 and the bubonic plague in 1348. As part of a historical research project using time travel at Oxford University a graduate student, Kivrin, slips through “the net” to study the early Medieval Period. But, because the person operating the net is one of the first to come down with an emerging viral pandemic in Oxford and is feverish, he gets the coordinates wrong and sends her into the middle of the bubonic plague in Medieval Oxford. 

In Blindness, an imagined epidemic in an unnamed country causes sudden blindness to spread from person to person through proximity. As people begin to fall blind, the government acts quickly to quarantine them in a former insane asylum (really it's more imprisonment than quarantine as there are armed guards preventing the ill from leaving). A recording system makes daily pronouncements to the blind, giving them instructions to keep the facility clean and share food that is delivered to the front door. The recorded instructions play each morning as more blind people arrive, resources become scarce, the building gets filthy, and social relations rapidly and disastrously deteriorate. 

Q: What do you find resonates most with our current experience with COVID-19?

A: The story depicted in Dooms Day Book resonates with our current moment in both small and profound ways. Willis wrote the novel in 1993, before cell phones, so there are infuriating moments when people can’t get in touch because they can’t get to a landline. While she didn’t imagine that cell phones would exist, she did imagine a videophone. These “vids” in 2054 Oxford have spotty connections during the epidemic due to high use. Given my experience using Zoom from my house in a rural area these last few weeks, Willis’s depiction of the frustration with this form of communication seems downright prophetic. Oxford of 2054 struggles with videophones, getting people to follow quarantine instructions, and yes, even a shortage of toilet paper.

In Blindness, the disconnection between the recorded pronouncements and what is actually happening to people haunts me as I work on campus communications about our current moment. I felt that when I read an account yesterday of what our international students who have returned to their home countries are experiencing. How must our emails about Zoom instruction read to the student confined to a “quarantine hotel” in China with very spotty internet? The intent is positive—to keep offering a good education at Lehigh— and we’re certainly more responsive to what is actually happening with students than is the government in Blindness, but still the potential for radical disconnect is there.  

Q: What are some takeaways we could apply to our current moment?

A: In Dooms Day Book there is a small village priest who, in 1348 Oxford, does not give up on affording people dignity in death. He buries the body of each person that dies and rings the church bell to send their souls to heaven, even when he is sick himself. Willis is careful to contrast this village’s care for one another with a nearby village in which bodies are strewn all over.  

At this moment in the United States and around the world people are dying alone because their loved ones cannot reach them. If they are in the hospital, the doctors, physician assistants, and especially the nurses are the ones who act in the priest’s role— offering them the dignity of care and witnessing their deaths. In a time of pandemic, governmental policy definitely matters, but how we treat one another in our local communities provides our most profound opportunity to express our humanity. 

The novel Blindness suggests that while governmental, administrative, or other responses to epidemics do have a powerful effect on social outcomes, ultimately it is on the local level that people find both the means to survive and meaning itself. When nearly everyone in the society Saramago depicts has gone blind and the asylum has burned down, small groups of blind people start traveling around together to seek food and take care of one another. This radically local focus begins to restructure society in positive ways. Because people who venture out can’t find their way home, empty property becomes collectively used by traveling groups until they decide to move on. What seemed important before the epidemic—home ownership, for example—shifts to enable collective survival. 

I wonder if the current pandemic will help more Americans to shift priorities in this way, for example balancing our commitment to corporate profits and a rising stock market with a dedication to universal access to health care. I hope so. In the meantime, we can all focus on taking care of the people we love most and reaching out to strangers we may not know yet, recognizing that we are all imperfect and vulnerable humans. 

Story by

Lori Friedman

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