Pandemics and Popular Culture: Coronavirus and the Imaginary of Disaster


‘Dystopia’. Credit: Mosman Library (Flickr/ Creative Commons)

Professor Majid Yar explores the enduring power of apocalyptic cultural imaginaries in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

In 2015, I published a book with the rather portentous (or possibly just pretentious) title of Crime and the Imaginary of Disaster: Post-Apocalyptic Fictions and the Crisis of Social Order. My analysis focused on the preoccupation in modern popular culture with scenarios of apocalyptic destruction and crisis. By means of a bewildering array of mechanisms – asteroid strikes, alien invasions, ecological catastrophe, murderous machines, zombie hordes, and, indeed, viral pandemics – society as we have known it is depicted in its inexorable collapse. Order, security and regularity quickly give way to their opposites – the loss of law-and-order, civility, and access to the most basic of human needs such as food, shelter, and safety from predation and death. Social life is depicted as a hellish descent into a Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. My argument was that this cultural fixation is, and has been throughout modernity, closely connected to the subjective experience of rapid social, cultural and technological change. Thus, for example, the recent pop cultural deluge of zombie-themed films, TV shows, comics, novels and video games, can be seen as a kind of surface of inscription for anxieties and resentments about the incursion of ‘alien others’ into heretofore clearly circumscribed life-worlds. The zombie thus carries clearly visible racialised overtones, and is depicted as a ravenous incursion, akin to the “hordes” referenced in Trump’s invective against brown-skinned migrants approaching the southern border of the United States. Similarly, perceptions about the allegedly alienating and dehumanising effects of digital technologies is paired with scenarios about sentient machines hellbent on enslaving or destroying humanity (see, for example, the Matrix and Terminator movies respectively).

Moving forward some five years, I wake in mid-March 2020 to see this news story circulating online: amidst scenes of coronavirus-fuelled panic buying, police are summoned to a supermarket in Sydney, Australia, where two women have descended into a brawl over securing a stockpile of toilet paper. An exasperated spokesperson for the police, in an unambiguous reference to post-apocalyptic pop culture, proclaims that “It isn’t the Thunderdome, it isn’t Mad Max, we don’t need to do that.” In this little vignette we get a hint of how the fictional narration of crisis has, in important ways, come to provide a lens or framing device with which we confront such a catastrophe when it arrives for real. Press reportage has similarly alerted us to a range of other uncivil and abhorrent behaviours – from teenage gangs casting potentially infected spittle in the faces of the vulnerable and elderly; through fraudsters selling fake cures and counterfeit medical equipment to desperate and frightened consumers; to hackers targeting hard-pressed hospitals with ransomware. These sorts of incidents seem to lend a prima faciae credence to popular anticipations of the consequences that might flow from pandemics and global disasters – the bonds of sociability are fractured, selfishness and self-interest are unleashed, and people succumb to their baser instincts as the state’s ability to impose social order through mechanisms of control and coercion is eroded. Such is the intuitive connection between fact and fiction that popular culture’s imaginary of disaster comes to pre-determine collective readings of unfolding events – in a typical example, an American cultural commentator tells us that “With coronavirus, we are all living a dystopian film”.

However, this narrative on current events warrants some serious and critical reflection. We might begin by returning to the Australian example with which I started this discussion. What is perhaps most noteworthy about the police officer’s response is not that he references Mad Max, but rather that he explicitly rejects the homology between the world of fiction and the events in question: “It isn’t the Thunderdome, it isn’t Mad Max, we don’t need to do that.” In other words, as appealing as it may be, it would be a mistake to overlay imaginary anticipations of social disintegration upon people’s actual behaviours when the crisis actually comes. In fact, scenes of conflict, violence, predation and incivility have been remarkably scarce (at least in Europe). Police forces in fact report significant drops in acquisitive and violent crime (although very real concerns over domestic violence under conditions of ‘lockdown’ must be taken seriously). Far from breaking the hold of normative rule-following over every day social behaviour, the crisis has yielded a kind of hyper-normative vigilance in which citizens use social media and police hotlines to report those who are failing to take seriously guidelines on ‘social distancing’. In the place of a war-of-all-against-all, we see instead a kind of ‘war of all against the virus’, and a massive upswing in community volunteering and neighbourly solicitude.

What has struck me is the extent to which so-called ‘panic buying’ has in fact taken the form of orderly queueing and a kind of good-humoured camaraderie, complete with a deluge of jokes about toilet paper. Such developments seem to entirely negate the terms and tenor of popular culture’s prognostications on disaster. However, they should come as no surprise to those who pay more careful attention to the social, cultural and historically-sedimented meanings of apocalypse and imaginaries about the end-of-the-word. After all, the origins of such discourse are rooted firmly in religious anticipations of redemption – the end times mark the realisation of justice deferred, an end to suffering and exile, restitution for the sufferings inflicted upon the innocent, and reconciliation of humans with each other, nature, and/or the divine. In other words, the horrors of all-encompassing disaster simultaneously contain the seeds of utopia. In its modern, secularised form, this ambivalence manifests in a hope of social renewal, the idea that out of crisis the supposed alienations of modernity can be countered by a rediscovery of solidarity and community. It is in this context that we might situate, for example, the words of António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, when he asserts that “recovery from the coronavirus crisis must lead to a better world”. Whether or not the current “rediscovery of the social” will in fact endure beyond the horizon of the crisis is a matter of conjecture, but it seems clear to me that the imaginaries of disaster, suffering, hope and renewal that configure apocalyptic culture are alive and well as we navigate the challenges of our present straits.

Majid Yar is Chair in Criminology at the Law School, Lancaster University. His research interests include cybercrime, digital culture, cultural criminology, crime and media, popular film and television, and criminological and social theory. Most relevant in the current juncture, he is the author of Crime and the Imaginary of Disaster: Post-Apocalyptic Fictions and the Crisis of Social Order (2015), published by Palgrave-Macmillan.