Preliminary Thoughts on a Pandemic

There’s a passage in Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful (and surprisingly not too depressing) book, Station Eleven, about the world before, during, and after a pandemic which I want to quote at length because it captures better than anything else I know how I am feeling right now. It goes like this:

An incomplete list:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and then only for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by.

No more screens shining in the half light, as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-coloured halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars.

Dust jacket artwork for Station Eleven by Vincent Chong

Dust jacket artwork by Vincent Chong for Subterranean Press edition of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Vincent Chong Illustration & Design)

No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.

No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in the upright and locked position – but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangers. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Teenagers snuck into them to have sex. Rust blossomed and streaked.

No more countries, all borders unmanned.

No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikoner Cosmodome , from Vandenberg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing feeling slightly less alone in the room. No avatars.


In the world Mandel describes in her book, a pandemic caused by a virus has wiped out 99% of the world’s population, and civilization as we know it has completely collapsed. As in our own world, the virus spread rapidly around the globe as a result of plane travel. While I do not expect that the COVID-19 outbreak will destroy civilization or cause anything like the death rate in Station Eleven, this book nicely captures a sense I have that things are bad and going to get worse, and that some things may never be the same again, even when this outbreak is under control: will it seem wise to fly halfway around the world for one week’s vacation? Or to gather people together in big crowds for concerts or political rallies? Or to get on a cruise ship with 3,000 other people, not including the staff who run it? Already I miss the ease with which I moved through the world only a week and a half ago.

White House Coronavirus Task Froce briefing, March 15 (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

Social distancing during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, 15 March 2020. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks via Wikimedia Commons)

While epidemiologists have been predicting a pandemic outbreak for a long time, and while bioethicists often use pandemic examples to illustrate issues in distributive justice in healthcare, it nonetheless came as shock last week when everyone at my university was told that classes were suspended in the middle of the day, because someone on campus had tested positive. Now, we don’t know what is going to happen with exams, and every trip out to pick up groceries or gas up the car feels a little dangerous: who knows if this is the trip on which we will become infected?

What has been truly shocking to me is the utter ineptitude of our leaders. They seemed to think that we had a lot of time to prepare – if, indeed, they thought there was anything to prepare for at all. While the Trump administration offers arguably the most egregious example of a failure of leadership on this front, the measures put forward by the Canadian government in the third week of March should have been put in place by the end of February. Moreover, from what I have been reading, screening at airports for travelers coming from pandemic hotspots seems to be a lesson in what not to do, rather than evidence that our government is doing everything it can do to protect us.

Pandemics, of course, provide us with lots to think about in terms of ethics. I have a few thoughts on how we might proceed if we keep the ethical dimensions of our current situation in mind, and if we want to be ethical friends, neighbors and citizens.


The first lesson is: don’t panic! Exercise reasonable precautions when doing necessary shopping, but don’t buy up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer and canned soup, so that the people who come in after you won’t find what they need. Indeed, the more we hoard, the more panic-stricken people are likely to get, because a fear of shortages becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the emptier the shelves, the more we feel we need to buy, the emptier the shelves become, and so-on.

The second lesson (somewhat paradoxically, given the first), is: take this pandemic seriously. Just before I sat down to write this column, I saw an astonishing video which showed British tourists in Spain who were partying in large groups, drinking heavily and ignoring the police officers who were trying to disperse them and get them to go indoors. This is a serious disease, at least for some of those who catch it – and none of us, regardless of our age, knows which category we might fall into (whether, that is to say, we would have few symptoms, or whether we might fall extremely, even fatally, ill) if we become infected. Moreover, we should do whatever we can to ensure that we are not a source of infection for other people.

Disneyland hand-washing station bySam Howzit / CC BY (

Hand-washing station at Big Thunder Ranch in Frontierland at Disneyland park, 2015. (Photo by Sam Howzit / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The third lesson is that we should do whatever we can to lower the burden on the health care system right now. The great danger at the moment is that the healthcare system will get overloaded and overwhelmed, as has happened in Italy, and as, I suspect, will happen in the United States. We don’t have the capacity to build 1,000-bed hospitals in a week, as the Chinese government, for all its faults, amazingly managed to do, but we do have the capacity to keep washing our hands, and to take other reasonable precautions.

The fourth lesson follows from this: we should be grateful to those among us who continue to work and to provide us with needed goods and services. This includes, of course, healthcare workers who have no choice but to expose themselves to those who are infected with the disease. We should also be grateful to bank tellers, grocery store workers, truck drivers, electrical plant workers, water treatment plant workers, and everyone who has to keep going to work so that we can be provided with the necessities of life. When we meet these people, it wouldn’t hurt to thank them for what they do.

The fifth lesson is that, if we have recently traveled abroad, and are now back in Canada, we should quarantine ourselves for at least 14 days. That means, don’t stop at the grocery store on our way home from the airport, as many people are reportedly doing. Instead, we should ask our friends and neighbors to pick groceries up for us, and leave them at our front doors. Most of the cases in Canada, so far, as of this writing, have been cases in which people were infected while outside the country, or people who have been in close contact with them. A number of these people, moreover, were infected while in the United States, so the quarantine rules apply to anyone returning from our neighbor to the south, too.

The final lesson is that we should practice social distancing as much as possible, not only for our own sakes, but, also, for the sake of those in our midst who are vulnerable and/or elderly. I personally have not left the house for four days, although I will have to leave it tomorrow to do some unavoidable errands. We should avoid large groups, we should keep our distance from one another when we are out, and we should spend as much time at home as possible.

I hope all of you stay healthy, and that we weather the storm as well as we can. This is one crisis in which each of us has a small part to play – but a small part that can make a huge difference.

Featured image: Emery Barnes Park Playground, Vancouver, during coronavirus pandemic by GoToVan from Vancouver, Canada / CC BY SA 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.