Pandemics force us to come to terms with our mortality, prompting deep questions about the meaning of life. It is therefore not surprising that since the days of medieval plague epidemics, infectious diseases have captured the imagination of novelists. These stories function as cautionary tales, holding humanity accountable.

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. One of the first novels to explore life during the pandemic was The Fell by British author Sarah Moss, published in 2021.

Written from the perspective of four neighbors living in a village in the English Peak District and set on a single winter’s night in 2020, The Fell presents a dark and claustrophobic depiction of pandemic life.

One of the protagonists is Kate, a middle-aged woman living with her teenage son. They have not been able to leave their home for the past ten days after she was exposed to a case of COVID at work. To escape her overwhelming feelings of despair and being trapped, Kate decides to take a nighttime walk in the nearby hills. She worries about being “caught” for the transgression of leaving her home and the moral judgments of her community if that happens. She remembers how the police was

chasing people from the hills with drones a few months ago… throwing loud accusations at them from the sky. Go home, you’re breaking the law.

Alice, Kate’s elderly neighbor who lives alone, reflects on the impacts of having to maintain physical distance from others,

acting like everyone is impure and dangerous, even though the problem is of course that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing.

Consequently, “no one has touched her in months”, and Alice wonders if she will ever be touched again. These neighbors care and watch out for each other as best they can. None of them have had COVID, but each is struggling to cope with the effects of the social and economic disruption the pandemic has caused, including on their relationships with neighbors, friends and family.

Read more: This is pandemic fiction: murder, disease and the afterlife in Steve Toltz’s Here Goes Nothing

silent despair

Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s collection of ten short stories, Life Without Children (2021), has a similar desolate tone. The main characters in these stories, which are set in Dublin, are almost all middle-aged or older men who go through their days either in quiet desperation or in some cases with outbursts of anger as they are trying to come to terms with the lockdown and the threat of COVID.

As one man remarks in the story “Masks”,

The confinement ripped off the padding. There is no schedule, no job, no commute.

In “Nurse”, a young healthcare worker returns home to her empty apartment and contemplates the deaths of two COVID patients, Joe and Marie, whom she saw that day. She thinks of how she held a tablet to Joe’s face so his wife could say her final goodbye, being kept from her deathbed by COVID rules.

She remembers how she helped prepare the bodies as they were washed and placed in two body bags, and the distinctive sound of the body bag when closed:

it’s the last thing she’ll hear when she closes her eyes. When she goes to bed.

There is also hope in Doyle’s stories, to counter despair. Some describe positive moments of renewed connection and intimacy between the men and their wives and adult children, as they share the experience of listening to a favorite song, reminiscing about their life together, or exchanging words of love.

Small revealing details

American writer Anne Tyler’s latest novel, French Braid (2022), presents a story of the Garrett family spanning six decades: middle-class white parents Robin and Mercy and their children Alice, Lily and David.

The novel’s final chapter is set in 2020, as COVID has just begun to affect parts of the United States. David, now in his 60s, agrees to have his son Nicholas and five-year-old grandson Benny come for an extended stay at his Baltimore home while Benny’s mother continues to work in New York . she is a hospital doctor and therefore on the front line of COVID.

In keeping with Tyler’s calm and highly observant writing style, family experiences of COVID are presented in a factual manner. Tyler paints small tell-tale details of COVID life: the fears and frustrations but above all the pleasures of robbing each other and forming closer family relationships. David recently retired from his high school teaching job, finding it difficult to teach online: “It turns out he wasn’t very good on Zoom.”

David discusses with his wife Greta how strange it is to stay home (“shelter in place”) when before the pandemic they took their freedom of movement so much for granted. Still, it was “shockingly easy” and “a relief” for David and Greta to let go of their social lives, as they eagerly seized the chance to spend more time with their son and grandson.

For this privileged family, COVID remains a distant threat, offering the benefits of renewed connection and little suffering depicted in other pandemic fiction.

A broken romance

Our Country Friends, a tragicomic novel by Gary Shteyngart, offers another perspective on pandemic lives. In keeping with Shteyngart’s writing style, this long book is satirical, with characters bordering on caricature.

There are echoes of The Decameron, a collection of 100 short stories written in the mid-14th century by writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio, in this tale of a privileged, self-absorbed, middle-aged group of people from ethnic/racial variety. gathered in a remote rural area at the start of the pandemic.

Read more: Guide to the classics: Boccaccio’s Decameron, a masterpiece of plague and resilience

The Decameron (published in English translation in 1620) is a scathing political critique, calling attention to the moral degradation and loss of community that occurs in the face of an outbreak of plague. Boccaccio refers to the plague either as “the action of heavenly bodies” or “visited us mortals for our correction by the righteous wrath of God”. He describes the citizens of Florence locking themselves in their homes, or the wealthy leaving for their estates in the countryside, while the “stench of corpses” filled the air in the streets of the city.

One of the guest names in Our Country Friends is Dee Cameron – a less than subtle nod to Boccaccio’s novel. As COVID rages in neighboring New York City, the group waits in the idyllic spring and summer surroundings of the “colony” of homes in which they seek refuge. For several months, the virus is kept at bay.

There are references throughout the novel to horrific reporting of illness and death in New York:

People were dying in the city. Some more than others. The virus had roamed the earth but chose to settle there.

The protagonists become aware of the media coverage of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and clashes between activists and police, but here again, these conflicts are far from their daily lives.

Gradually, the pandemic and its impacts are getting closer. The virus eventually inevitably enters the colony. Summer is over, and with it, the brief, blissful sense of isolation that the colony’s inhabitants had enjoyed.

Pandemic life stories

Over the centuries, fictional accounts of pandemic lifetimes have presented a sense of the world as we know it as changing, perhaps forever. Some major themes are taken up: the difficulty of individuals and communities in coping with a deadly infectious disease; changes in daily life and concepts of risk and safety as people react to the threat; moral judgments about people’s behavior; the ways in which the superficiality or depth of interpersonal relationships are exposed by epidemics; and the political contexts in which medical and public health responses are developed and implemented (or abandoned).

In Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (Plague in the French original), published in 1947, a serious infectious disease (referred to only as “the plague”) is rapidly spreading in Oran, a Franco-Algerian city. The book is written in an absurdist style with Camus’ characteristic existentialist philosophical perspective framing the narrative.

Epidemic disease is a motive by which he demonstrates the human condition subjected to the force of nature. There are many descriptions of the horror, panic and despair felt by the citizens of Oran as their city is locked down, with disease rapidly overwhelming them. Nonetheless, the novel recognizes that humanity can demonstrate admirable qualities such as kindness, compassion, courage, connection, and concern for one another in the face of great suffering.

Read more: Guide to the classics: The Plague by Albert Camus

A key novel centered on the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is The Line of Beauty (2004) by British author Alan Hollinghurst. Nick Guest, a naive gay white young man, lives a glamorous existence in 1980s London at a time characterized by both hedonism and Thatcherite individualism. As the decade progresses, however, Nick’s life begins to deteriorate.

The novel presents a fresh but scathing critique of the concerns of those who seek beauty while giving up loyalty and true intimacy. There are oblique references to HIV/AIDS early in the story, but the disease is only mentioned by name about two-thirds of the way through the book. When Nick tries to explain the threat posed by HIV/AIDS to his privileged straight friends and benefactors, they respond with victim-blaming accusations, describing the disease as something “homosexuals” “caused” themselves. In 1987, the young men Nick knows in London’s gay community are wasting away and the death toll is rising.

Unlike the grim images of earlier plague novels, in contemporary pandemic narratives, death and the dying are not crowded into the streets, smelling like the sky. Death is largely concealed in private homes or hospitals, reflecting a broader tendency in the West to deny its visceral realities.

At the heart of fictional depictions of COVID experiences is the question of how to live with others in intimate relationships, when the outside world is fraught with peril, controlled by official and community surveillance and censorship.

The small details of everyday life are under scrutiny as the conditions of the health crisis probe weaknesses – but also reveal strengths. In COVID fiction, the fragmentation of community ties and family relationships is highlighted. But also, the “small acts of kindness” (in Tyler’s words) offered by relatives, neighbors, and friends are signs of what Camus called “common decency,” bringing solace and connection in terrifying times.

These COVID stories depict the first phase of the pandemic, when people around the world were coming to terms with what this new virus and disease meant for their lives.

But the COVID virus, we’ve learned, is dynamic and shape-shifting, and medicine and public health policy struggle to keep up. Inevitably, new forms of COVID fiction will emerge to document our uncertain pandemic lives.