Imagining Pandemics Through Fiction and Journalism
Project Description

This project investigates fictional accounts of plague, tuberculosis, AIDS, and other pandemics that imagine the ways in which mass illness can affect social customs and political actions and draws parallels to the current situation. The horror of isolation in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of a Plague Year, the nationalism in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the political divisions of Albert Camus' The Plague, the ethical conflict between research and treatment in Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, the intersectionality of barriers to health in Sapphire's Push, and the human costs of medical developments in Namwali Serpell's The Old Drift resonate with today's COVID-19 headlines. They warn that there will be no "return to normal" and indicate the necessity of recognizing the unequal and long-term effects of illness on a global scale. Much current journalism both exacerbates these imagined experiences and ignores their deep and lasting consequences.

Translational Perspective

Media reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic has direct effects on health and well-being, whether it incites violence towards a perceived Other, encourages life-saving behavior modifications, or reveals inequities in healthcare resources. Media accounts also unevenly reach audiences of different resources, beliefs, and health literacy, leading to conflicting interpretations and responses to the pandemic. The necessity of rapid reporting necessarily elides the nuances of pandemic repercussions on diverse populations, reflection on the reverberations of lasting effects of responses that improve health outcomes in the short-term, and the historical repetition of health concerns and responses considered to be new. Fictional accounts of pandemics demonstrate the ways in which current perceptions of COVID-19, reflected in and generated by reporting, necessitate careful contextualization.

Melissa Bailar
Contact Infomation: First name
Contact Information: Last name
Contact Information: Position title
Director of Grants and Initiatives
Contact Information: Institutional affiliation
Rice University Humanities Research Center
Contact Information: Email address
melba [at]

Houston, Texas, USA