Living through 2020 makes me appreciate that novelists and screenwriters aren’t clairvoyant. While we’ve had plagues in history, and several accounts of what they were like — hell, most of us reading this are old enough to remember AIDS — most of the fiction I’ve read or viewed about pandemics got it dead wrong.
Thrillers like Mission Impossible II (2000) where the bad guy’s going to release a lethal bioweapon invariably focus on the horrific body count we can expect. None of them deal with what we’ve seen this year, that the effects of pandemic go way beyond just killing. The economic damage. Hospitals overwhelmed by the number of covid patients. Social isolation — I can’t imagine what this would have been like back before Zoom, Facebook and the other tools I rely on for contact with friends and family.
I know perfectly well how the Black Death upended Europe’s medieval economy. With so many dead, the balance of power shifted to workers for many years, giving them opportunities they’d never had before. In the current economy it’s playing out differently, of course, but the point is I never thought about economic effects at all until they happened. Of course, I never figured this pandemic thing would last more than a couple of months, either.
And I don’t recall any fiction anticipating how utterly batshit some people would become. Refusing to wear masks. Becoming belligerent when businesses ask them to (funny, I could have sworn that “businesses have the right to set their own rules” was right-wing holy writ. Go figure). Treating sensible steps to protect yourself and others as the first step to Evil Socialist Dictatorship. Spreading lies about vaccines. Insisting the Trump Virus doesn’t exist, even as it kills you. Using the fake ADA cards that supposedly give them the right to ignore mask requirements. As blogger Fred Clark says, that last one is classic super-villain thinking: So you want to make people be nice to the disabled, eh? Well, I’ll just take your “disability rights” and use them against you! Nyahahahahaha!
(And for anyone who’s wondering, no, the most you can get if you can’t wear masks is curbside pickup or the option to use alternative protection such as a face shield. Not the freedom to wander around the store breathing on people).
It’s not that people in the past were rational in times like these. Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On chronicle lots of bad judgment, risk-taking and crazy ideas circulating. But nothing on the scale we’re seeing now.
And then there’s villains. For example, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who said he was fine with 3.4 percent of the population dropping dead, just as long as his stock portfolio didn’t suffer (that’s not quite how he phrased it, but that’s sure how I take it). He sounds like Gene Hackman in Superman gloating about how he’s going to drop half of California into the ocean to boost the value of his real estate. Except, of course, that Luthor was smart and Johnson, like other Republicans adopting this line, is a dumbass: no way was refusing to contain Covid going to work out well for the economy (who would that many deaths benefit outside the funeral business?). Luthor went to jail, Johnson is still treated as if he were fit for polite company.
And Johnson’s not even unique. My state senator, Richard Burr, told the public the virus was no big deal, told big-money donors it was a serious problem and sold his stock holdings in several hotel chains before the economic impact got to them.
Then there’s Diaper Don. As one screenwriter told the Washington Post recently, Trump’s a terrible villain: no internal life, no depths, no complexity. He’s a two-dimensional caricature, not a rounded, believable character.
I’ve been carrying around a story idea for years wherein the Antichrist performs anti-miracles. His media empire convinces everyone that there are food shortages and they need to horde (the anti-loaves and fishes). His HMOs deny coverage for treatment even when the patient’s entitled to it (anti-healing). It turns out you can whip up people’s greed and resentment and spread disease without a diabolical plan. Without any brains. Without even trying. The Antichrist doesn’t need to be an evil genius, just a narcissistic, imbecile bully.
It’s been a sick sad world this year. Let’s hope 2021 sees us getting at least a little healthier and a little better written.