The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Handmaid's Tale, Station Eleven, and, hell, even The Walking Dead... If you, too, love dystopian (and sometimes speculative) fiction, you're definitely not short on choices.
This genre has been a thing for well over 100 years, but it's really exploded in popularity since the turn of the millennium, and specifically after 9/11. We're so drawn to these works, some researchers think, because we recognize an exaggerated version of our own world in them, and they're a way to help us process our fears and prepare for the worst.
Few of the many people who enjoy watching and reading about the end of the world as we know it, I guess, truly expect to wake up in a dystopian fiction. Yet here we are, living in the shadow of a global pandemic that the world initially reacted to too slowly, too weakly, and in many cases with toxic doses of denial.
Many by now familiar scenes certainly point in this direction, and they wouldn't look out of place in any of the dystopian novels and movies we love so much.
The nasty side of human nature is certainly showing right now
"Every man for himself" supermarket-and-pharmacy-raiding bonanzas? Check! Just today, as I went to do the shopping for an elderly neighbor, a fellow citizen shoved me out of the way to beat me to the last few packages of spaghetti. (My neighbor ended up with wholemeal pasta, which almost nobody ever liked, instead.)
Get-rich-quick schemes that profit from others' misery? Check! Once your local stores and pharmacies run dry, don't worry — someone on the internet, it's a big company like Amazon or some random dude on Facebook, has you covered. For a ridiculous price. They're joined by "fake news" outlets, which the folks who maintain the Doomsday Clock now consider to be among the biggest threats to humanity.
I'm-young-and-healthy-so-I-can-just-carry-on-as-normal people? Check! I encountered sneezing toilet-paper hoarders in the store myself today. They're not helping flatten the curve, but before we consider them to be completely antisocial jerks, we should also consider the likewise sad possibility that they've got no choice to go out and get food because they have nobody to do the shopping for them.
Or, for instance, the possibility that they are actually following official instructions. My friend, who is a healthcare worker in the Netherlands, just read me the bulletin she received from her workplace — don't stay home from work if you have symptoms of the common cold or a fever. Only stay home if you have respiratory symptoms and a fever. Would you like some coronavirus with that?
Racism? Hating on marginalized people? Check, yet again! One study that analyzed how the SARS outbreak was handled determined that media coverage fueled anti-Asian racism — Chinese-owned businesses suffered disproportionately, realtors refused to show houses to Asian people, and taxi drivers donned gloves as they approached predominantly Asian neighborhoods.
Right now, it's clear that we've learned nothing. It's not just Asian people who suffer the effects of this human tendency to gravitate towards others who are — in some way — "just like them", and quick to judge those who are "other". One so-called news article I read today described homeless people as petri dishes. In times of crisis, folks become desperate for a scapegoat, for someone else to blame.
It's gotten so bad that the CDC put out a warning against the COVID-19-related stigmatization of particular social groups. We'd do better to make sure we're following official instructions to the letter, to help slow the spread of the pandemic.
It's not time to write humanity off altogether just yet
But we're not just seeing the worst of humanity at the moment.
We often think that humans, as a species, naturally react to grave threats with mass panic, violence, and selfish self-preservation tactics — but research shows that we're just as likely, if not more, to seek comfort in solidarity and look for ways to help others. There's plenty of that, right now, too.
Wherever we live, we no longer need to turn to dystopian fiction or even scary news from faraway countries to discover surreal experiences. Maybe you're self-isolating at home. Maybe you're rushing out to stockpile toilet paper. Maybe you're working on the frontline of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe your workplace has closed and you're worried sick about your current or future finance, and maybe you're even infected.
Like your world, mine is small right now, but stories from people I know show it's not time to give up on humankind just yet.
In Spain, my colleague had the chance to witness and participate in gesture that invokes tears in a good way. Every night, people converge on their balconies to applaud and cheer their healthcare workers, the heroes of this dystopia. "They agree the time on social networks," he told me, "but if you don't know when it is, you'll hear it and spontaneously join in — I couldn't help it, and I clapped so much my hands were red, and it lasts for 10 minutes."
In the Netherlands, my friend and her healthy and able neighbors organized to buy medical and food supplies for their elderly neighbors. They leave them outside the front door to keep their fellow citizens safe.
On the internet, some children — including mine — choose to escape the weirdness and cabin fever that surrounds us with schools now closed by diving into the world of Minecraft. The server my kids are on now features a memorial for the victims who lost their lives to the coronavirus, and other players added virtual flowers.