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STRANGER THAN FICTION

Apocalyptic sci-fi is helping me cope with the Covid-19 crisis—yes, really

Reuters/Piroschka van de Wouw
These days the world really does feel stranger than fiction. Even science-fiction.
  • Ritoban Mukherjee
By Ritoban Mukherjee

Science journalist

And just like that, we were all out of flour. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. It was 9:00pm in our suburban neighborhood in West Bengal, and India’s federal government had just announced a statewide lockdown an hour ago. The lockdown went into effect at midnight, and would enforce a halt to pretty much everything in the country save emergency services, with a mere four hours’ notice.

People surged into the streets on motorbikes, in cars, and on foot. Everyone scrambled to buy groceries and essential items like soap and toiletries. And when I say buy, I actually mean hoard.

Our house is on the main street, and we could hear a police car pass by with its loudspeaker blaring that essential goods would be available throughout the lockdown, and there was no need to panic-buy. Nevertheless, people kept pouring outside, most wearing little more than a handkerchief turned into a makeshift mask for flimsy protection.

But we needed flour. I tried to carefully avoid every shop where there was a crowd, but pretty much all the grocery stores were packed. I went to at least five different shops in our small area of town before I found one that was comparatively empty. Thankfully, it still had flour.

The three-week lockdown was announced on Tuesday, March 24 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that, at the time of publishing this article, has caused a reported 13,000 deaths and counting in the US, and more than 86,000 deaths worldwide. In India, reported deaths are comparatively lower at fewer than 200, but many fear for what’s to come, especially when people have refused to practice social distancing or stay at home despite repeated warnings from researchers, doctors, and government officials, leaving the administration with no choice but to enforce a full-blown lockdown.

Even before the announcement was made by prime minister Narendra Modi, several individual states had been instituting partial lockdowns of their own. West Bengal, the state that we live in, had already been on lockdown since that Monday. But even now, despite constant police patrolling and the closure of all non-essential businesses and establishments, people are out in the streets, most shopping in fear of not having enough supplies to last through the crisis.

To say that our administrations have been ineffective would be a lie. But our country has a population so huge that issues of miscommunication and mass hysteria are bound to arise. There have been reports of people with symptoms of Covid-19 trying to evade examination, infuriated pedestrians attacking law enforcement, certain law enforcement officials forcefully shutting down essential or emergency services, healthcare professionals being evicted by their landlords, and of course, hoarding.

What a pandemic does to our mental health

I realize that the issue is a lot bigger than myself or my family. In fact, this is the first time when people from around the world have shared in an experience to this degree. In a lot of ways, it’s presented an opportunity to come together—because, if not now, then when? Still, I’d be lying if I told you that this chaos has had no effect on my personal psyche.

I am 21 years old, and I’m diagnosed with obsessive compulsion disorder. Right now, I live in an erstwhile industrial town called Durgapur, about two hours by car from Kolkata, with my mother, an elementary school teacher, and my maternal grandmother, who’s a homemaker.

I developed OCD when I was around 5. My father was a pediatrician in Bankura, another city in West Bengal. I lost him to a massive heart attack when I was in the first grade. My psychiatrist will tell you that it was the trigger event for my OCD. My symptoms have changed with time, but generally speaking, manic depression, anxiety, and obsessive thinking are things I have had to deal with since I was a child.

It’s gone on for so long that I’ve quite forgotten what it’s like to be what you might call “neurotypical.” I have to maintain an elaborate drug regimen just to help me get through the day. Therapy helped for a while, but ultimately, it didn’t have much effect.

When I first found out about the novel coronavirus, I actually handled it pretty well, all things considered. Then someone told me that one of the symptoms of Covid-19 is a rash. The funny thing is, I knew they were wrong. Covid-19 does not cause a rash. Still, I started experiencing a constant tingling sensation all over my body that just refused to let go. Even as I write this, I can still feel inklings of it.

Then came the crushing anxiety—although it’d be wrong to say that all of it was the sole result of my mental health. I have three older adults in my extended family who are patients of chronic respiratory problems, one of whom is a smoker. My first thought was that if anyone in my circle were to contract it and it spread, they wouldn’t make it past this summer. I had already lost my grandfather just last year, and now I stood to lose more family.

The dread I’m experiencing often feels unspeakable. I know many people are feeling it, too. A few days ago, I felt that way almost all the time. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t work, couldn’t even sleep without having nightmares. I can’t confidently say it’s all better right now. But I have discovered one thing that’s offered some consolation.

Comfort in the form of a sci-fi apocolypse

Comfort came, as it often does for me, in the form of a book.

Specifically, Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, the award-winning novelist who writes young-adult science fiction. Her best stories, in my opinion, are tales about the end of the world.

In this book, the apocalypse isn’t caused by a viral outbreak that turns everyone into zombies, nor by aliens arriving to invade and enslave the human race. It’s caused by a meteor crash that collides into our moon, causing it to be thrown off its usual orbit and bringing it closer to earth.

Since the moon influences the tides, the anomaly causes a dramatic change in the geology of planet Earth, leading to tsunamis all across the globe. New storm clouds cause an immense change in weather patterns.

When the resulting change causes most of the world’s systems to falter—markets close, governments fail, the grid shuts down—our protagonist, a teenage girl named Miranda, is forced to confront a world that is a mere shadow of what it was before. The book is not just about surviving the apocalypse; it’s about what comes after.

Finding solace in a story about the end of the world might sound counterintuitive, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. And while we can’t seem to quite put our finger on why it provides a balm for our anxieties—not scientifically, at least—there is something therapeutic about reading someone else’s imaginings of the worst. Some say it mirrors back our own anxieties, presumably helping us feel less alone. Others say it allows us to identify what we are hopeful about and thankful for, even in the midst of gloom and catastrophe.

For a book that deals with the harsh realities of a world suddenly upended, Life As We Knew It does not sacrifice hope for cynicism. In fact, hope is the deciding factor in this novel, the one thing that keeps the protagonist and her family going despite impossible odds. In the end, that was the thing that kept me reading.

While fantasy fiction allows us to escape from reality, sci-fi provides us with a window through which to confront our darkest fears. The best stories about the end of the world are not meant to elicit terror; they’re there to show us a way forward even when every door around us seems to slam shut. Not only does it force us to face the idea of a world changed, but it also shows us how to live through it, despite the uncertainty and the dread. It shows us how to deal with our anxiety instead of suppressing it.

Pfeffer isn’t the only author I’ve been reading during my time in lockdown. The Book Of M by Peng Shepherd deals with love and dementia as the world is literally ending due to a strange phenomenon that causes people’s shadows to disappear. People who lose their shadows gain extraordinary power but can no longer retain any memories. Some of them forget even the most basic things, like how to unlock a door, or how to chew. Others set out to create a new world based on their mis-remembered concepts of the old one. The book is both abstract and profound, and as someone who recently lost their grandfather to dementia, I couldn’t help but relate to it on a deep level. And in the middle of it all are our protagonists, a couple who tries to hold on to what little they have left of each other.

In all the science fiction that I’ve managed to read during the past weeks, the themes of hope and desolation have regularly entwined, as though one couldn’t possibly exist without the other. It’s kind of true, I suppose. Humans have the capacity to find hope in the most desperate of situations. I’ve been reminded of this in another book, called They Both Die At The End, which is set in a near-future world where there’s an app for everything. As one app notifies our two protagonists that they are living the last day of their lives, another pairs them together for one last epic adventure before they die. Through the course of the book, we’re shown the value of experiencing love and hope, even when we know we’re hurtling toward certain death.

Through each book that I read, I realize more and more that the emotions we’re dealing with right now—uncertainty, dread, a fear of losing the ones we love—are all things that human beings have dealt with throughout our time on earth. It is how we respond to these threats and the choices we make in spite of them that makes us who we are.

Covid-19 will not be the thing that ends the human race. It will not kill everyone. But it will continue to chip away at our most vulnerable—the old, the sick, and the far too young. The world we are left with when this catastrophe is finally over will be different for it.

With economies upended, healthcare systems failing, and stores running out of resources from a constant cycle of hoarding and panic-buying, we will be forced to confront who we really are, for better or for worse. Do we let our selfishness get the better of us and save ourselves, or do we face the coming odds with unity and solidarity? Chances are the answer will be a bit of both.

The point here is not that we should panic; quite the opposite. If there was ever a time to cultivate calm and take care of ourselves, even in small moments, it is now.

Three things have helped me manage my anxiety and get through this unreal world we now live in, which I hope will help you, as well.

First, fact-check your news—there is a lot of fake news and rumors floating around, so make sure that you check your sources, and the science, before you jump into believing something that otherwise seems suspicious.

Second, offer help when you can, and ask for it if you need it. There are plenty of solid organizations working to help communities in need that are accepting donations right now. There are also dedicated support groups that offer a kind ear and material support to people facing severe difficulties at this time of crisis.

My third piece of advice? Read a lot of books! When reality seems like it’s closing in on all sides, immersing yourself in the tale of another person from another world can help bring some much-needed perspective to the one we’re navigating now.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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