Epidemic: from reality to fantasy

Tempo di lettura: 4 mins

Comparing the Covid-19 pandemic with two pandemics from literature: “The White Plague” by Frank Herbert and “Station 11” by Emily St. John Mandel

Epidemics is an often recurring theme in world literature, where authors share with us their realistic and unrealistic version of them. I recently read two books with global plagues in them: “The White Plague” by Herbert (1982) and “Station 11” by St. John Mandel (2014). These books came to mind at the outbreak of the new coronavirus epidemics, and I was reminded of the traits of their own epidemics and how puzzled they had left me. I will not compare these three diseases scientifically, as that would be impossible. Instead I will try to focus on the plausible reality in the fictional ones.

In Mandel’s book there isn’t a precise description of the virus, except for extrapolated data on contagiousness, virulence and mortality. “The georgian flu”, as the virus is called in the book, is a flu or flu-like disease (much as the coronavirus) with high contagiousness and very high mortality rate.

As an example, I’d like to recall the description of a New York-London flight. It usually takes 8 hours of flight, plus a couple to check-in. Mandel describes how, during this flight, one infected person not only spreads the disease to 99% of the other passengers but also that these people, at landing, show grave to moderate symptoms while “patient 1” is in critical condition and will die shortly after. Let’s construe this scene. Classes in infectivology and microbiology lessons come to mind. Based on what we learned during these classes, how high mortality rate usually is combined with low contagiousness, Mandel’s virus pandemic isn’t possible. If we analyse it closer still, we notice that the “georgian flu” kills the host in less than 12 hours. This doesn’t leave enough time to infect a high enough number of people to create a pandemic; smaller epidemics may still occur, but are easily controlled due to the rapid development. Moreover, in a modern world (like the one in “Station 11”) there are numerous self-defence mechanisms that are seen in response to the coronavirus as well; quarantine, airport controls and much more. Just imagine an airplane landing with a comatose person on board and quite all the others suffering greatly. Would you have it land as usual? Would you let the people onboard get into the airport? Or would you rather send for highly specialised transportation?

Obviously this couldn’t happen with the coronavirus. While the coronavirus is quite contagious it doesn’t have a very high mortality rate, with 80% of patients showing little to no symptoms. Furthermore, it’s possible for infected people to avoid quarantine and continue to infect others; we are experiencing the result of this. The only the only real disease comparable with “georgian flu“, with obvious differentiations, is the ebolavirus. The ebolavirus has low contagiousness (only if in contact with bodily fluids), high virulence (easiness to catch the disease if in contact with infected bodily fluids) and high mortality rate (60% and higher mortality rate in Africa’s 2014 outbreak).

It’s more difficult to talk about Herbert’s “White Plague”, even if we do know more about the disease he presents. We know that it’s a lab-created virus, not using a pre-existent micro-organism, so even nowadays quite impossible; it has already been shown that SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as COVID-19, isn’t lab-created. Moreover, the lab-created plague from the book was more targeted than modern illnesses, only affecting the female part of the population while being asymptomatic in males. Leaving out the impossibility of that situation (in medicine nothing is certain), this trait could help illustrate to normal people how the coronavirus was able to spread around so much. In our world the number of infected people keeps increasing, but now we all know symptoms and people try to protect themselves and others by not going out even if they have a normal cold.

However, asymptomatic infected, virus carriers that keep on living normally, still exist. This is mirrored in Herbert’s book where the male population, appearing healthy but still carriers of the disease, manages to spread “the white plague” to the vast majority of the population.

I’d like to state again that the books described aren’t scientifically conceivable and it’s therefore not correct to compare them with the real world, even though curiosity led me to do it anyway. The books are nice to read though, for different reasons. “Station 11” has a highly poetic and evocative writing while “The White Plague” makes us dive into the human psyche and reality, giving numerous hints on ethics, moral and personal codes.


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These notes are strictly personal but express ideas which are shared by a vast community of researchers, including epidemiologists, clinicians, immunologists and lab scientists. This is meant to be a working document.