Infected and affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are now coming to grips with a novel social distancing reality. Around the world, “Stay at Home” mandates have brought life as we’ve known it to a standstill. It is now up to each of us to fill the hours and space in which we find ourselves quarantined for the as yet undetermined future. For me and others who turn to books in times that test the spirit, I am reminded of past landscapes and characters that have been here before. Quarantined in a small space that takes on new meaning. In Amor Towles 2016 novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” thirty-year old Count Rostov is tried in 1922 by a Bolshevik tribunal for the crime of being an unrepentant aristocrat. Rather than being executed, he’s sentenced to house arrest for life in Moscow’s elegant Metropol Hotel where he resides in a spacious suite. Henceforth, deemed a “non-person,” he will never again be allowed to set foot outside the hotel’s doors. Upon returning to the Metropol, the Count is allowed to move a few sentimental family possessions to his newly assigned living quarters under the hotel’s roof. He decided all that his monastic-sized cell could accommodate were books, 2 high-back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a set of his grandmother’s favorite porcelain plates, 2 table lamps, his sister Helena’s portrait, a leather case, and a desk that was a gift of his godfather. In the decades that follow as Russia’s tumultuous history unfolds, the hotel’s lobby, restaurants, kitchen and lower levels became the Count’s entire world. With his former elite status no longer recognized by the state, he forges friendships among the hotel staff and outwits a jealous, officious foe. When a little girl’s life is suddenly placed in his hands, his life takes on a new sense of purpose. What had been taken for granted was now treasured as never before. This, in fact, may be an unintended blessing of the quarantine that separates us right now. Another book with lessons for our times is “La Peste” (1947) by Albert Camus. The fictionalized story is set in the Northern Algerian town of Oran—a port city on the Mediterranean swept by pestilence and plague in the 1940s. The book was thought to be a war allegory of the French resistance to the Nazis—the fascist ‘plague’ that inspired the novel— in World War II. Camus, an atheist who joined the French Résistance, points out the futility of human aspirations and the inevitability of suffering. “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky… A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.” Given forty years of Ebola, SARS, and MERS outbreaks and today’s novel COVID-19 pandemic, Camus’ novel of plague and quarantine takes on the literal as well as metaphorical level. The coronavirus did not just overwhelm America out of the blue. After the first U.S. case was confirmed in January 2020, precious time and lives were lost before its seriousness was acknowledged. The President claimed “no responsibility” for failing to heed early warnings calling for widespread testing, or for dismantling existing research programs tasked after earlier virus outbreaks with creating a universal vaccine to combat future contagions. The 2019 Netflix TV docuseries “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” documents efforts of dedicated research scientists, doctors, and epidemiologists around the world working to develop a universal flu vaccine even before Covid-19 was first detected in China in December 2019. Producer and doctor Ryan McGarry told The Los Angeles Times that the film was inspired largely by the struggles that vaccine developers face, both financially and scientifically. “We started looking into the people around the world and in the United States, whose entire careers were based on trying to make sure the 1918 influenza pandemic never happened again. Yet most of these people were having their budgets slashed or they were not being taken seriously,” he said. “And, well, here we are.” With much of the country directed to stay home throughout March and now April, this timely documentary has gained a huge, captive audience. Along with Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film “Contagion” about an Ebola-like disease, “Pandemic” is streaming into living rooms around the country as Americans wait for the bad dream Camus described to end. Pestilence and plagues are part of the human condition. If shortsighted leaders continue to ignore and defund science when we should be preparing for the next novel coronavirus, another pandemic will surely crash down on our heads. And when it does, no one will be able to claim that it just came “out of the blue.” Stay home and stay strong. In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back. – Albert Camus Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.

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