Even well into the second year of the pandemic, long after effective vaccines have been developed, profoundly important lessons are yet to shape key political decisions. Wealthy countries hoard and renege on their responsibilities to help poorer countries with vaccination programmes. Conditions are still ripe for the emergence of lethal variants of the coronavirus.
On one level, all of this is odd, both the early and continuing failures. Everyone who needed to know, knew that a pandemic would happen. And it wasn’t as if popular culture was short of warnings, disaster stories about pandemics and plagues kept the prospect of tragedy near the surface of public awareness.
Cultural fascination with pandemics is literal and metaphorical, spanning virus thrillers to zombie films. Being able to fully imagine something happening is a big step to making the necessary contingency plans for it. But many vital steps were not taken, why?
Did we lack other crucial stories that might allow us to imagine the possibility of things being run differently, of governments doing the right thing, in advance, without being dragged, begrudging and late to act?
Stories matter in the way that sleep, dreams and fantasies matter. They allow us to digest and make sense of the day, to incorporate its lessons. Paradoxically, fantasy, fairy and folk tales are a serious business.
Many of the oldest tales emerge from, explore and assimilate some of the most traumatic human experiences, from war to famine, displacement and, yes, pandemics too.
Yet, in modern consumer cultures it can feel as if the seriousness of purpose – the ability to imagine and paint the possibilities of better, parallel potential worlds – has been lost or relegated.
It is as if anything that exists outside the narrow business of day jobs designed to generate money for dutiful consumerism is not taken seriously and has no value. This is a dangerous mistake. Story can be very practical, especially when it comes to threats to life.
There is an old tale told among the Inuit of the Nunavut territory in northern Canada about a monster called the Qallupilluit. It lived beneath the ice at the water’s edge and kidnapped children, dragging them to an icy doom. Its purpose is fairly obvious, in teaching children to beware of thin ice and the dangers of drowning.
It works too, as I discovered after accidentally terrifying my own daughter when young by reading her the tale. I realised how effective it was one day while walking by the side of a lake. I made a casual joke about the Qallupilluit and saw her flinch visibly and retreat from the water’s edge. Lakes and seas with unpredictably thinning ice become more common with global heating.
In the devastation following the great Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, some isolated groups including the Moken tribe in the Andaman islands, who took their cultural knowledge and myths seriously, survived better than most.
They had an ancient story about the Laboon – a wave that eats people. The story contained details about the ground shaking and animals behaving strangely before the Laboon raised itself from the ocean floor.
It worked like an indigenous, cultural early warning system and people knew to move to higher ground when they recognised the signs from the story. Fatalities appeared worse where cultural memory was weaker.
Something similar happened on an island near the disastrously hit West Aceh. Simeulue had only a handful of the overall fatalities while devastation hit elsewhere because on this island, they had grown up knowing a song about ‘Smong’, their word for tidal wave.
One had hit the island in 1907 and a warning song about it was passed down from generation to generation. When the first signs of the impending tsunami were seen, islanders ran calling out ‘Smong, smong.’
Cultural knowledge embedded in song, myth, fantasy, fairy and folk tales can all help us prepare and work out how to respond to the unexpected.
In the 1960s geologists began innovatively to use myths for the study of ancient events. Contemporary geologist Patrick D Nunn working in the South Pacific used Fijian myths to identify previously unknown volcanic events, commenting that, ‘there are not many examples of wholly invented myths – ancient humans were not like modern fiction writers. The point of these stories was to pass knowledge along’.
Concern about the loss of traditional, indigenous knowledge is often dismissed as an irrelevant, romantic indulgence to be swept away by the improving powers of modernisation and urbanisation.
In practice, however, it can destroy hugely practical, proven and effective practices that save lives, leaving populations more vulnerable to a range of environmental threats.
And, when this happens in countries like Indonesia, lost cultural knowledge about reacting to the threat of tsunamis was not replaced by anything better, equal or, in many cases, at all to protect people. This is how stories can save lives.
Not all of the contributors to Contagious Tales tell stories about communicating lessons on how to deal with direct threats to life, though several do. But all, somehow or other, help us to understand the consequences of leaving things as they are, and what we need to let go of to improve our chances of surviving and flourishing.
With origins ranging from Italian, to North American, Swedish, Swiss, South African and English their stories explore the need for change, and what there is to gain from transforming how we live in the world and manage human affairs.
Ironically, ‘lockdown’, the widespread, often poorly staggered response to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, was experienced by many as more like an absence of story. It was something that once begun, quickly lost its beginning and felt like it might have no end.
It was all middle, lived like an anti-story. But, in spite of justified criticism of some callously incompetent handling of the pandemic by governments, other responses demonstrated humanity’s extraordinary ability to care for each other, and to rapidly change and adapt to face down sudden threats, acting in the common good. Some official reactions to the pandemic were exemplary in terms of speed and prioritising public safety and well-being.
The kind of vitally important cultural knowledge described here, and embedded in stories, doesn’t come from nowhere. As we’ve seen, it typically has beginnings in real events. The pandemic is an all too real event which has killed millions of people, countless of whose lives could have been saved if known lessons had better informed decisions.
Partly this has been the result of bad stories crowding out good: stories about the premature return to offices in the name of the economy, conspiracy stories about vaccines, spurious herd immunity, or that elderly people have no useful contribution for society and so are of little concern.
This is why it matters profoundly that we write new stories to encode and keep culturally alive the lessons we have learned from living through the pandemic. Let’s name just a few.
Staring into the gathering vortex of the climate and ecological emergency, perhaps the biggest and most important lesson is that far from change being difficult or impossible – we are able to transform not just the economy but our day-to-day lives almost overnight – putting public health and well-being before short term economic interest.
People stayed local, left cars in garages, stopped travelling, worked from home where they could, wore face masks and gave way to key workers – all in the name of the public good.
Most people in most places did not behave, in fact, like tabloid clichés in a disaster, selfishly and irresponsibly. Most people looked out for each other and did the right thing. Many set up local, mutual aid groups or helped stitch personal protective gear to make up for shortages.
Another lesson is that acting its best, the state has the capacity to enable and make things happen at scale and speed. It can, for example, end street homelessness, compel the banking system to support rather than drain the real economy – and it can even be the wage payer of last resort.
This matters, because the pandemic also revealed many overlooked systemic failings in society. These are insights too that stories must help to hold in the light.
The impact of the pandemic was felt very unequally depending on race and class, with those who are most marginalised and on the lowest incomes being worse affected. It showed starkly how key workers ranging from those in health and care, to those working in public transport, cleaning and retail are undervalued.
Even in countries with strong public health systems, the care system, especially for the elderly, was exposed as poorly funded and regulated. The vulnerability of freelance and precarious gig economy workers was laid bare.
Small businesses were shown to be more vulnerable compared to big businesses and less well represented in decision making, yet often more flexible and faster to respond to change.
People who rent rather than own their homes were often more vulnerable. It was impossible to ignore too how some of the more deregulated economies internationally, such as the US and UK, experienced some of the highest mortality rates.
At the same time, we learned how rapidly potentially positive change can happen. More space for people and nature was quickly created in towns and cities. We learned to provide each other with more space, green space and breathable air.
One new tale to tell is about how so much travel, especially for work and by car, has been unnecessary – the internet and flexible working can cut commuting for many people – saving time, money and pollution. Flying too for work has rapidly become a thing of the past, with meeting online far easier.
Many learned to live with less stuff, to eat better, buy less wastefully and to have fun by making more of what they had already, and making their own entertainment.
Especially for those in the global north, many of whom consume well beyond a fair share of current planetary limits, the pandemic allowed for experimentation with reducing overconsumption. With non-essential shops often shut during lockdowns, it meant doing more with less.
Millions spent time at home with family or walking outside, grateful for the internet to enable communication, but also returning to homemade activities. People adapted to create new, different, ways of living that turned out to be less wasteful, more thoughtful and kinder on our environment, showing that it is possible to live well with less ‘stuff’.
The pandemic has been like a disaster movie for many people. But, like in a mythic tale, great tragedy also brought forth examples of self-sacrifice, love, drama, hope and humour.
People pushed to their limits learned things about themselves and what they think is truly important. Many discovered or re-discovered a love for the natural world. Others stumbled upon their local community, became part of a new community and stepped forward to help those more vulnerable or needy than themselves.
Contagious Tales can be seen as one, small contribution to the task of naming, remembering and passing-on some of the lessons of the pandemic in stories, in the hope that we will do better next time. Stories can be intrinsically life enhancing too.
As the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, says the book, “is like being by a campfire, surrounded by your favourite people telling stories that are funny, inventive, full of pathos and truth”.
Realising that some of these lessons unveil much greater human possibilities for change, the stories might also help open up our imaginations and find other ways to face the multi-generational challenge of the climate and ecological emergency.
Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.
Contagious Tales can be ordered from the independent Real Press here and online in digital or print form here. It is edited by Andrew Simms and published jointly by the Real Press, the New Weather Institute and the Rapid Transition Alliance.