Scene from the movie Outbreak. Photo: Screenshot

How books, movies, and even mediums "predicted" the COVID-19 pandemic

After almost a year in this trap of fate called COVID-19, I revisited the “visionary” works of literature and the entertainment industry that, someway, predicted what we are living today

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From The Plague, by Albert Camus, to Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez, to Hollywood, and Dean Koontz, who, in the 1980s, wrote a book about the virus “Wuhan-400”. About to turn a year –WHO declared that the disease caused by Sars-Cov-2 was a pandemic on March 11th last year –, I revisited the “visionary” works of literature and the entertainment industry that, someway, predicted what we are living today.

“He listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” That’s the closing excerpt from The Plague, Camus’ 1947 book that returned to the bestseller lists at the beginning of the new coronavirus pandemic last year. The author talks about an epidemic in an Algerian city. Its main character, a doctor, reflects on the city that won an epidemic, but which, for him, ignores future threats.

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In 2015, Microsoft‘s co-founder Bill Gates participated in a TED Talks entitled The next outbreak? We’re not ready. He said that his greatest fear today was neither war nor nuclear bombs. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.”

From billionaires to famous mediums: some talked about a devastating pandemic

If many folks didn’t believe Bill Gates, can you imagine the mediums? Sylvia Browne was a well-known author and medium in Hollywood, interviewed by some legendary radio and TV hosts, such as Larry King, who unfortunately died a few days ago from COVID-19. In 2008, in a book, she said: “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and all known treatments.”

Like Bill Gates and Sylvia Browne, hundreds of books, films, and TV shows have talked about epidemics and pandemics before. What few imagined is that many would come so close to the current scenario.

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“Stay away from other people”

Soderbergh’s movie Contagion shows how a epidemic can turn into a pandemic. Photo: Screenshot.

The 2011 film Contagion was a long time last year among the most watched on Netflix. It was not for nothing. Steven Soderbergh‘s thriller chronicles how an epidemic became a pandemic, leaving Asia with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character and arriving in the United States. “Don’t talk to other people, don’t touch other people, stay away from other people,” says the character in the film, played by Kate Winslet, an infectologist. Success was no accident. The film was consulted by Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who played a major role in eradicating smallpox and fighting polio. He had been warning since 2006, in his lectures, that the world was facing something similar to the new coronavirus. Soderbergh drank from that source and got his prognosis right.

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From “Fake News” to Zoom, who got it right

Apparently, the relationship between epidemics and fake news is not exactly new – it has only been exacerbated by technology. In A Journal of the Plague Year, the writer Daniel Defoe tells that false information, as well as the black plague itself, spread quickly through London in 1665. Many people adopted awkward treatments like chewing tobacco and hanging a nutmeg around their neck, spreading the news that it served to ward off the bubonic plague.

“One mischief always introduces another. These terrors and apprehensions of the people led them into a thousand weak, foolish, and wicked things”, he wrote. He also spoke of social isolation, both the quarantine imposed by the government and those who imposed themselves on certain families, and recounted how, over time, people began to ignore the warnings.

In Latin America, the book by Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera is about a cholera epidemic in the Colombian city of Cartagena in the 19th century. At the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic last year, the book was also targeted by fake news when a text from a dialogue between a boy and a ship captain flooded social media. The text is not from the book. However, there are many metaphors with the miserable conditions for fighting epidemics in South America.

In the book, it is the romance between the characters Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza that shows the impact of isolation on love. Letters and messages from a distance relationship, for various reasons, are the Zoom of our times.

There are even two interesting metaphors in the book: the first is that Florentino is a telegraph operator, that is, a telegraph operator, a profession that is almost extinct today, but that connected distant people; and the second is that he needs, in his own words, to “stay alive” if he wants to materialize his love for Fermina.

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“Monkeys bite me”

Another film that was among the most-watched during the pandemic was Outbreak, from 1995, which tells the story of a disease spread through a small town in California thanks to an infected monkey brought as a mascot from Africa. The film reinforces the thesis that the epidemic comes from undue contact with animals, such as the famous bat soup, which, they say, started this whole tragedy. Dustin Hoffman‘s character spends the entire thriller hunting the animal, looking for answers about the disease.

The “sixth sense”

Scene from the movie Blindness, inspired by the eponymous book by José Saramago. Photo: Screenshot.

Two narratives “hit the nail on the head” with the symptoms of the new coronavirus, such as loss of meaning such as smell, and taste. Blindness, a film based on José Saramago’s novel, is one of them. In the book’s epidemic, people do not get the flu, do not lose smell or taste, but go blind. And they are isolated, which brings the worst aspects of them to live in society.

The 2011 Perfect Sense film, on the other hand, focuses on the romance between a chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green). In the film, people lose their senses, one by one, during a strange epidemic, starting with the smell, followed by taste. They also go crazy, having crying attacks, among other psychological reactions that are not uncommon in the current context.

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Dean Koontz‘s book, The Eyes of Darkness, caused a flurry of publications and stories about a supposed pandemic prediction of the novel coronavirus. Why? Well, the 1981 book mentions the “Wuhan-400” virus, a reference to the same region of COVID-19’s first outbreak, four decades before the current pandemic. But the coincidences do not stop there.

In Koontz’s novel, the virus is synthetic, created in the laboratory, and does not look like Sars-Cov-2. At the end of last year, the author himself, put an end to the controversy. “It was one of those things on the internet that are basically fake,” said Koontz. “It was one of those internet things that’s mostly bogus. I had a book 40 years ago mention the Wuhan virus and it came from a lab in China. I didn’t make a prediction of a pandemic, it was a totally different story,” he told ABC News, in a rare interview.

On Twitter, Stephen King also denied that the series The Stand, based on the author’s eponymous book, had any connection with the new coronavirus pandemic. The work inspired a TV series by CBS at the end of last year. “No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND. It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions,” he posted.

The imaginary and the lessons learned from other pandemics; art imitates life. It is interesting to see how the entertainment industry’s biggest brains thought what is seen today.

But, we have to admit that the current reality is “stranger than fiction”.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes