I arrived at a rather unenviable and hopefully “once in a lifetime” position recently—having accurately predicted the novel coronavirus now sweeping the globe.
It’s an inexplicably eerie feeling. A pandemic is not something you ever hope to be “right about.” You hope it never happens. Unfortunately, one of my greatest fears has come true. A fear with its roots firmly planted in my first novel, The Jakarta Pandemic (TJP for short), published ten years ago.
The idea for TJP sprang from an already unhealthy obsession with viral outbreaks. Captain Trips from Stephen King’s epic, The Stand, was burned into my psyche from an early age. I burned through The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton in a single sitting. The book Hot Zone by Richard Preston and movie Outbreak was like a one-two punch, released a year apart in 1994-95. The movie 28 Days Later in 2002. Max Brooks brilliant novel, World War Z a few years after that. I couldn’t get enough of these stories. And then the Swine Flu pandemic hit in 2008! Looking back, it should have come as no surprise to anyone, especially me, that my first stab at writing a novel would center around a pandemic.
However, despite my initial enthusiasm—the project barely got off the ground. The usual first time, part time writer challenges applied. Didn’t know what I was doing and wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort. Limited time to write. Busy with two young kids. Everything got in the way, but the biggest delay came from what turned out to be the novel’s greatest strength.
I spent at least six months researching past pandemics, virology, disease epidemiology, U.S. and world pandemic response protocols and detection capabilities, vaccine production, the U.S. healthcare and medical infrastructure, U.S essential services infrastructure, supply chain dynamics.
I consumed every article or paper publicly available that could help me understand the various impacts of a pandemic on society. I had hit what writers call “research paralysis,” where I was obsessed with collecting and digesting more information than I truly needed to write the novel.
When I finally broke through to the other side, I decided to tell the story differently. I steered away from the heroic CDC scientist hopping from one jet to another to reach the next hot zone or the critical response team fighting against all odds to stay one step ahead of the pandemic. Instead, I focused on a single family’s tense and claustrophobic struggle to stay alive during the most lethal pandemic in recorded human history. Of course, I threw way more at them than an unseen virus. Society collapses in my novel (along with nearly all essential services), pitting neighbor against neighbor in a vicious struggle to survive.
What does this have to do with me predicting the COVID19 Pandemic?
Fast forward ten years from the publication of The Jakarta Pandemic to January of this year. Without going into exhaustive detail (I’ve already taken up enough of your time)—YOU DON’T LOCKDOWN AN ENTIRE CITY OF 11 MILLION PEOPLE FOR THE SEASONAL FLU. I had been watching the virus news closely when Wuhan was locked down by Chinese authorities, noting that the first case detected in the U.S. a few days earlier, had recently returned from a trip to Wuhan. That was all I needed to know.