The Pre-pandemic Universe Was the Fiction

What the coronavirus outbreak reveals is not the unreality of our present moment, but the illusions it shatters.

Hannah Whitaker

Years ago, I started writing a short story, the premise of which was this: All the clocks in the world stop working, at once. Not time itself, just the convention of time. Life freezes in place. The protagonist, who works in a Midtown Manhattan high-rise, takes the elevator down to the lobby and walks out onto the street to find the world on pause, its social rhythms and commercial activity suspended. In the air is a growing feeling of incipient chaos. I got about midway through page 3 and stopped. I didn’t know what it meant.

One word I’ve been hearing a lot lately is unreal. Mostly, I hear it from my own mouth, because I haven’t left the house in a month, but also I hear it from friends on Zoom or Skype, and from the news on TV or online. Unreal, or its variations: not real, surreal, this can’t be real.

Of course, the global catastrophe unfolding is nothing but real. Stock-market convulsions have destroyed, in a matter of days, nest eggs built over decades. More than 16 million people in the United States applied for unemployment over just three weeks. The case count and death toll grow with each refresh of the page.

And yet some part of me still doesn’t want to accept that these calamities are really happening. Not really. What does it mean to say that this doesn’t feel real? The feeling seems to derive from the assumption that life before the pandemic, “normal” life, was real. That we have departed from it into strange territory.

But what if it’s exactly the other way around?

What the current crisis and our responses to it, both individual and institutional, have reminded us of is not the unreality of the pandemic, but the illusions shattered by it:

The grand, shared illusion that we are separate from nature.

That life on Earth is generally stable, not precarious.

That, despite what we know from the historical and geological and biological record, human civilization—thanks to advancements in science and medicine and social and governmental structures—exists inside a bubble, protected from the kind of cataclysmic event we are currently experiencing.

What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that this supposed technological bubble was just that: a thin layer that popped easily.

The stronger bubble, the one that persists, is the psychological one. Even as our stark new reality becomes clear, it remains hard to accept that “normal” was the fiction. It will take some time to let go of the long-held, seldom-questioned assumptions of everyday life: that tomorrow will look like yesterday, next year like the last.

These assumptions are a luxury. For me, they are a cross product of my intersecting privileges: born in the United States, to professional parents, at a point in history where my life has proceeded, for the most part, through a series of economic booms without major socio- or geopolitical upheavals. Or at least with upheavals far enough removed so as to allow me to feel physically and mentally insulated. Living with these assumptions for so long has created a kind of expectancy as to how things tend to go, that my life has to make some kind of sense.

But what if it doesn’t? Quantum mechanics might provide a useful, if rough, analogy. At a fundamental level, physical reality defies our most basic intuitions about causality and locality, which is to say about time and space. Our senses and perceptions evolved to evade tigers and catch food, not to understand the properties of photons and subatomic particles. Despite more than 100 years of effort by the world’s leading physicists and philosophers, the quantum realm remains incomprehensibly bizarre. As it turns out, science fiction cannot invent anything weirder than the brute reality of the universe itself. The fact that we cannot comprehend it is a form of environmental mismatch.

We may face a similar type of conceptual difficulty in grappling with a pandemic. Our brains may not be naturally suited to dealing with problems of this scale or nature. Even our language, our concepts, are inapt tools, artifacts of our previous reality. Unprecedented, historic, we proclaim, with each new, grim milestone. As if precedent and history have bearing on a virus that seeks only to maximize copies of itself.

Perhaps most revealing is how we say the damage, the fallout, and the speed at which things are happening feel unimaginable, a word telling both in its rightness and wrongness. We “imagine” this kind of disaster all the time, in our dystopian-novel trilogies, our bingeable streaming miniseries. And most famously, in our summer popcorn global-disaster blockbusters, a well-worn genre that derives its pleasure and dread from the same source: literally imagining the worst. We enter dark, cool theaters in the middle of July, portals to other universes in which various doomsday scenarios play out. But here’s the key: We’re always behind a scrim of safety, a barrier between what we think of as possible and impossible. We watch these movies as tourists in an alternate reality, knowing that our round trip lasts two and a half hours, and then we will be home, safe in the real—and boring—world.

And of course, novel, we call it, but SARS-CoV-2 has been around in some form for thousands of years or more. It is novel only to us, Homo sapiens, the one species that imagines its survival, its success, as the central narrative of the story of this planet. A story with a beginning and middle and end. A story that has structure and rules. A story that means something.

In the current chapter of this story, there are ostensible villains: some members of the Trump administration (including the president himself) and officials at the state level who have been reckless or incompetent or self-interested or shortsighted or all of the above. There are heroes as well: certain governors and mayors, science advisers and health-care professionals, individuals who, in a time of uncertainty, have performed with courage, duty, expertise, and sacrifice.

But the reality is, zooming out to the largest scale, fighting the pandemic effectively requires us to take actions that go against our instincts, our intuitions, the things we evolved to be good at. Cooperation—farsighted, strategic, collaborative action—is required to defeat an adversary that relies on our physical cohesion. We can find meaning in how we fight it, but relying on our old illusions, assuming that we, as humans, will prevail, is dangerous. Life, for us and the virus, is about genes propagating themselves. No amount of magical thinking or bluster or can-do attitude can change that fact.

As we hear reports of peak deaths and curves flattening, the quiet wonderings about when life will return to normal will get louder every day. As the whispers grow, it will be important to remember: Things don’t have to be resolved in a way that works out all right for us, or for our economy, for any particular systems or ways of living. Things aren’t necessarily going to be okay in a reasonable timeframe just because we want them to. To think otherwise is to succumb to the fiction, a sheltered, resource-rich mindset (presumably not shared by the billions of people who have long lived in volatile conditions and are thus under no such illusions).

Five hundred years ago, Copernicus re-centered the universe away from us, outward. The COVID-19 outbreak is a reminder: The world isn’t for us; we are part of it. We’re not the protagonists of this movie; there is no movie. After all the suffering and wreckage have subsided, one good thing for our long-term viability will be to have changed our ways of thinking. To have regained a humility.

I say humility because, as it turns out, unimaginable says more about the limits of our imagination than about reality itself. What we really mean when we say that this pandemic feels “unimaginable” is that we had not imagined it. Just as imagination can mislead us, though, it will be imagination—scientific, civic, moral—that helps us find new ways of doing things, helps remind us of how far we have to go as a species. How little we still understand about our place in this world—terrifying and awful at the moment—but also how much we still get to discover. How fragile and rare our ordered structures are, our fictions, and how precious. How next time, we might rebuild them, stronger.