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Who’s afraid of the novel coronavirus?

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Don’t panic

Conservatives Gather At Annual CPAC Event Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Every horror story begins with a pause, a held breath, when nobody is quite sure what to make of the unfolding situation. When’s a good time to panic? My favorites put off answering the question for as long as they can.

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about Severance, the prizewinning 2018 novel by the author Ling Ma, because of its premise: a fungal fever in China spreads across the globe and kills millions, decimating society. It feels ominous that the situation with the novel coronavirus is even passingly similar, even though Ma’s book is set in an alternate past.

In 2011, just after Occupy Wall Street, people start to get sick in Shenzhen, and it spreads from there across the world. By the time it hits New York, people have begun to abandon the pretense of normalcy — the thing that keeps society running as designed. Ma’s best invention, though, is her protagonist Candace Chen, who keeps working her job at a publishing company in Manhattan as her co-workers quit and die and the rest of the world is collapsing. She never panics.

In the case of COVID-19, it kind of feels like the opening scenes of a horror movie: the stock market is down, and the quarantine zones are spreading. The virus is burning its way from east to west, taxing infrastructure, governments, and families. Life is starting to change. But we’re not living in a work of fiction; the future isn’t authored by anyone, and it’s absolutely not preordained. As the Centers for Disease Control says: “At this time, this virus is NOT currently spreading in the community in the United States.”

What’s more interesting to me, at least right now, are the people thinking about how the virus will collide with America’s social and federal infrastructure. Mostly they’re not doctors; they’re just people who have worked and lived in America for a while, feeling their way through an upcoming crisis. A person who goes by @NomeDaBarbarian posted a thread about working in food service and what happens when people get sick.

Which is common sense: if you can’t afford to go to a doctor, you don’t go to a doctor. It really is that simple.

Others have been reacting quite a bit differently, mostly depending on their net worth. Over on Instagram, Gwyneth Paltrow recently posted a picture of herself wearing a $70 ventilator mask. As Jezebel observed, “Paltrow isn’t wearing a mask out of deep concern for public health; she’s posting because she’s beginning to panic.” And she’s not the only one.

The government, on the other hand, seems to think the disease is political, and appears to be mismanaging its response. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting chief of staff of the White House, recently said he thought the press was covering the virus because “they think this will bring down the president,” and not because a global viral outbreak is inherently newsworthy. (A White House correspondent reported that Mulvaney sent an email saying that all coronavirus-related communications were required to go through Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary.)

According to The Washington Post, a whistleblower in the Department of Health and Human Services recently alleged that the organization sent “more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear.” And today, Reuters reported that at a closed-door briefing for the House of Representatives, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said he believed “that the sustained spread of the coronavirus in so many countries meant there would many more infections in the United States.” There is so much we cannot know.

And nobody knows how this time will turn out: not celebrities, the government, or people online. The mortality rate is very low for people under 70 who aren’t immunocompromised — the flu kills multiples more people each year — but there’s something about the novelty of this disease that is uniquely terrifying. The flu is an evil we know: it isn’t the killer lurking in the shadows waiting to find a perfect victim. Fearing the unknown is primal and present-tense. Coherent narratives are only ever applied in hindsight, which is why my favorite part of horror fiction is when the protagonists realize what’s happening to them — when they accept the new reality of their situation, make it legible to themselves, and then figure out how much they want to survive.

In Severance, as the bodegas close, Candace Chen escapes New York. She joins up with a group of survivors who are traveling to a sanctuary somewhere near Chicago, a place that’s presumably safe from Shen Fever; it is not quite a happy ending. In the end, Ma’s book is less a horror novel than a deft critique of capitalism: if your office is working as designed and nothing has changed for you yet, can you call what’s happening a crisis?

For us, for now, the answer is no — even as people have begun to reckon concretely with how the virus is reshaping their lives. Conferences are being canceled; global supply chains have been disrupted; and the airline industry alone is forecast to lose $30 billion as a result of canceled flights and decreased demand. Anxiety is a deeply human response to losing control; panic is an irrational response that happens when something terrible appears on the horizon and there’s suddenly no way out. Eventually the breath has to be exhaled.