Emily St. John Mandel’s first novel, Station Eleven, starts with a pandemic. One of the main characters receives a phone call from a friend in health services who warns him that things are not looking good. He stocks up on seven carts of groceries and goes to his brother’s apartment, as his brother is wheelchair-bound, and they lock the door and watch the news until the worst is over and most people have either died or left the city for the surrounding countryside. Ultimately his brother dies, as he feels he won’t survive in the new world from a wheelchair.
The COVID-19 virus has similar distressing undertones. People are stocking up on everything – sometimes regardless of whether or not they need it – and the shelves in local supermarkets are bare (I know, I was out yesterday and all the chicken was gone as were most of the frozen vegetables and toilet paper – yes, toilet paper). People are ‘social distancing’ by staying at home and not going out to populated places – or even to work.
As the pandemic in Station Eleven wanes, the world has gone on without people. There’s no more gas, so nothing gas-powered will operate. There are no trains, no movies, no airplanes, no swimming pools. It’s kind of like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, where Weisman describes flooding in the abandoned New York subway, concrete jungles giving way to real ones, and farms reverting to wilderness.
Like Mandel and Weisman, I am imagining a world without people. Researchers have already seen a reduction in pollution over China and northern Italy, the worst hit regions of the globe. I wonder if this pandemic will be recorded in the carbon dioxide concentrations at Mauna Loa, with lower values due to people not driving and industry not working. The price of oil has dropped to $23 a barrel due to reduced demand (and Saudi Arabia and Russia refuse to halt production), and governments who rely on oil revenues (e.g., Alberta) are starting to panic. How will they manage the reduced revenue from oil income along with the reduced revenue due to the pandemic? The stock market drops, is bailed out by the Americans, then drops again, with the Bank of Canada slashing interest rates to 0.75%.
I think about the universities and schools that are empty, dust collecting on the tops of pictures, spiderwebs filling the windows. Display cases showing school achievements that no one will see. Toys in the playroom waiting in boxes for children to return. High rise offices in downtown Victoria empty, dark and shuttered. Pubs and restaurants are closed, extra food slowly mouldering in the fridge and servers stuck at home, not being paid, wondering how they’ll make their next mortgage payment. The streets are quiet, people taking walks to avoid the boredom at home, where they’ve just finished their 10th round of The Settlers of Catan with the kids. No one dares go to the dentist, the doctor, the optometrist, the hairdresser or anywhere else that requires close contact.
Italians sing songs together out their apartment windows, music ringing out over the empty streets as everyone joins in. A couple of enterprising Italians play tennis between windows, until the ball drops to the street below.
The COVID-19 research community calculates the residence time of the virus on various surfaces: On plastic and stainless steel, viable virus could be detected after three days. On cardboard, the virus was not viable after 24 hours. Which makes everyone ordering from Amazon since they can’t go out wonder if the parcel that just arrived has brought with it a viral traveller.
We have shut down schools, universities, restaurants, libraries, offices, and more for two weeks, but the pandemic is expected to peak in July/August – which is much longer than two weeks away. What will the world look like when we emerge from this pandemic? How will our demographics have changed, how strong will our economies be, how many people will be barely scraping by? How many scientific experiments will have been ruined, how many people will have died due to lack of emergency room access as people with COVID-19 fill the hospital wards, how many businesses will have gone under? How will our abandoned buildings have fared, the schools and office buildings that no one has been in for months? Will mice and cockroaches have taken over in the absence of humans and their daily cleaning?
There is so much uncertainty associated with this pandemic, along with a shortage of equipment like face masks, gloves, respirators, etc. We were not ready. And we won’t know the ultimate cost until at least six months from now.
I think I’m going to read Weisman’s book this week. And wait to get my copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s new book, The Glass Hotel, once the library opens again.