One of my favourite books is A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It’s a historical fiction account of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire in England during an outbreak of the plague. It tells the story of 1666 when the village goes into lockdown and a housemaid becomes an unlikely healer. The illness reaches into every household in the village. But it’s not the disease that is the villain – what is worse than death, in its ability to corrupt and destroy, is superstition. It spreads as quickly as the disease itself.
It’s the most basic human survival response. We are the animal who tells stories to understand the world. We use narratives we’ve constructed to manage our fear. The narrative’s accuracy is irrelevant. The narrative is meant to signpost the unnavigable, to send flares into the dark cave of the unknown. It provides architecture for our uncertainty.
When I think about it like this, it gives me immense compassion for those who believe what I perceive to be wildly unbelievable stories; narratives that involve complex co-operation and co-ordination that speak to a unified world, where currently there is none. For some it is shelter in their storm to know someone is digging the tunnels where vampiric paedophiles hide the stolen children. Some people find organised and co-ordinated horror more reassuring than chaos.
Disease has always done this to us. In the time of the Black Death many believed that the plague was God’s punishment for sinful ways. So to control the uncontrollable, one simply became virtuous and honoured God. Some believed that the Black Death was a mass conspiracy by Jews against Christians. Racial blame is perhaps as old as civilisation itself. And heaps more infectious.
Had they the scientific insight to know that the plague was in fact an infectious fever caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis, passed from rodents to humans by the bites of infected fleas, they might have tried sanitation, or killing rats. But instead they fed their bias.
I’ve been thinking about A Year of Wonders a lot. I feel like we’ve been locked in Eyam – in a cross between a very dark time in a medieval village and Atwood’s fictional Gilead. These are the stories that help me navigate this bizarre landscape, the ones that talk less to what I literally experience, but more what it feels like. I feel weird. This whole thing is weird. Life is weird. Not knowing is weird. And knowing, well, sometimes that’s even weirder.
I wonder how it got to this? I wonder what is ahead? I wonder why people believe what they believe? When I reflect on the last two years of the covid pandemic it’s been as much a pandemic of belief as it has been of illness. Conspiracies have flared up with the same viral ferocity as the disease itself.
Whatever you believe about covid, however, is irrelevant. We are here. It is here. It’s the crocodile skimming past you in the river. It might miss you this time, but get you next. Like with most crocodile attacks, it’s the people who can’t swim that get taken first: old people, weak people, the vulnerable. And there’s not just one crocodile; we’re bobbing in a river full of crocodiles.
I’ve had the covid croc skim past many times already. I know it’s just a matter of time before I feel its powerful jaws take me and pull me down to the river floor.
Am I scared? No. Not anymore. It’s just weird.
We’re learning to live with crocodiles.