5 Works of Fiction that Predicted Covid-19
By Andrew Whalen / Newsweek
Epidemics and plagues have stalked humanity for centuries, inspiring literature and other forms of art stretching back to before we even had the germ theory of disease. In books like Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (1994) and Albert Camus' The Plague (1947) the human toll of epidemics are explored.
Viruses and other diseases have also become a popular topic for movies and television, kicking off zombie pandemics in The Omega Man (1971) or falling from space in The Andromeda Strain (1971, based on the first novel Michael Crichton wrote under his own name). Some artists find meaning in plague and its rippling effects through society, others see only useless death.
But while many fictional pandemics are too implausible to be readily believed, sometimes a movie or book hews surprisingly close to life. When it comes to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, there are a handful of fictional stories with enough overlap with real events for us to wonder, did the author somehow predict the current pandemic?
Some of these viral predictions require so much stretching they can't be said to have even superficially predicted the coronavirus pandemic. Others are so close, you'll wonder if the predictor really could see into the future (they can't).
The Masque of the Red Death
The Red Death doesn't resemble COVID-19 symptoms at all, nor does its prognosis, which kills its victims within minutes. "The whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour," Poe writes.
But around month five or six, Prince Prospero decides to throw a decadent masked ball. But then a mysterious stranger, seemingly a masked embodiment of the disease itself, shows up at the party. It doesn't end well.
Roger Corman's lush 1964 movie adaptation, starring Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, fleshes out the parable-like Poe story, adding a kidnapped peasant girl and underlining the contempt the rich revelers hold for the lower classes trapped outside with the disease.
Did it predict the coronavirus? No, it didn't, but the echoes of the story can be seen in the current discourse around social distancing and self-quarantine. While many service workers are still risking infection, those who can afford to are stocking up on supplies and making plans to wait out the pandemic spreading outside their door. People haven't been shy about comparing the fictional and factual scenarios.
Ever since Kim Kardashian tweeted a photo from End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World, people have begun crediting the self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne with predicting the coronavirus.
"In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments," she predicts in End of Days, in an eerie reflection of the coronavirus pandemic. "Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely."
Did it predict the coronavirus? While it seems unlikely that coronavirus will "suddenly vanish," Browne's predictions nails some key details, even if promising treatments are already under development. But this is definitely case of "seeing what sticks" among hundreds of predictions. In the same book, Browne also predicted the stock market would no longer exist, robots would work in our homes and we would have cures for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, obesity and blindness.
The Eyes of Darkness
"A Chinese scientist named Li Chen defected to the United States, carrying a diskette record of China's most important and dangerous new biological weapon in a decade," one character explains in The Eyes of Darkness.
Other than the name "Wuhan," shared with the city in China where COVID-19 is believed to have originated, the coronavirus pandemic shares nothing in common with Koontz's bioweapon. Only completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theories claim COVID-19 is a biological weapon, with the actual origin of the novel coronavirus traced to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, suggesting the virus' origin in animals. The current prime suspect is the horseshoe bat -- since the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the full name for the novel coronavirus) is closely related to other coronaviruses found in bats -- not the Chinese military.
Beyond its wildly different origin, The Eyes of Darkness' Wuhan-400 is also completely unlike COVID-19 in its symptoms and epidemiology. Wuhan-400 is way deadlier than Ebola, eating away at brain tissue until the sufferer can no longer regulate their own breath and organ failure ensues. Wuhan-400 also disappears without a trace, a major contrast with COVID-19, which is dangerous precisely because of its lengthy period of possible transmission.
Strangely enough, even if Wuhan-400 more closely resembled COVID-19, Koontz would have still been way off the mark, since the disease originally had a completely different name -- Gorki-400 -- and Russian origins. When The Eyes of Darkness was rereleased in 1989, at the tail end of the Cold War, the book was updated to a Chinese threat.
Did it predict the coronavirus? Not even close, but its plot superficially resembles conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
Nostradamus mentioned plagues a handful of times throughout Les Prophéties, but only one quatrain (Century V, Quatrain 63) seems at all relevant to COVID-19:
"From the vain enterprise honour and undue complaint,
Boats tossed about among the Latins, cold, hunger, waves
Not far from the Tiber the land staine with blood,
And diverse plagues will be upon mankind."
It's pretty thin, as far as predictions go, but Nostradamus' mention of the Tiber -- a river in Italy often seen as a symbol for the country and its history -- could be seen as an allusion to the European nation, which has been particularly hardhit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Did it predict the coronavirus? No, it seems safe to say Nostradamus didn't see this one coming.
"When I started talking to experts, they all said, 'It's not a matter of if there will be another pandemic, it's a matter of when,'" Burns told the Los Angeles Times in March. "There's nothing uncanny to me about doing research."
In the movie, a fictional virus called MEV-1 hops from bats to pigs to people, quickly spreading from its Hong Kong origin point. Contagion follows a large cast of characters as they react to the spreading virus, including a CDC investigator, played by Kate Winslet, who explains how the virus spreads in terms that will be familiar to anyone paying attention to COVID-19.
Did it predict the coronavirus? No, but Contagion is likely the most accurate movie about viral pandemics ever made, creating significant overlap with the COVID-19 scenario.
Since plagues and the spread of disease have terrorized and captured humanity's imagination since the advent of civilization, it's almost surprising there aren't more stories out there that more closely track with the coronavirus pandemic. With its wide window of contagiousness and high survivability, varying primarily by age, COVID-19 may be perfectly suited to cause maximum strain on our health care systems and social institutions, but it's not very cinematic. Most fictional depictions of pandemics seem more inspired by terrifyingly deadly diseases like Ebola, such as 1995's Outbreak. So while there may be eerily prescient depictions of disease that overlap with the novel coronavirus, there's nothing that can be truly said to have predicted the current pandemic.
Fittingly, it was scientists and researchers who most saw the danger from COVID-19 coming. In October, the Center for Strategic and International Studios simulated a fictional pandemic, assembling experts to develop approaches to a spreading global disease and to stress-test the United States' capacity to respond. For their simulation, they chose a new strain of coronavirus (originating in Europe), with a similar rate of transmission and death as COVID-19.
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