13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic

A list of pandemic themed books and movies to read and watch during quarantine that can help you both pass the time and process difficult to understand feelings.
Raycene Nevils-Karakeci
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The pandemic list

As the COVID-19 crisis is forcing many people around the world to enter into their second month of quarantine (be it self imposed or otherwise), pandemic themed movies and books are becoming a popular way to escape. Some may find it comforting to read or watch fictionalized scenarios similar to our current day reality, while others may find solace in the knowledge and predictability presented by real-life accounts of previous pandemics.

On the spectrum between history and fiction, there lie two extremes - terrifying accounts of tragedy and ineptitude during the pandemics of yesteryear and apocalyptic zombie films. Psychologists warn that finding yourself on either extreme of pandemic themed entertainment right now can cause anxiety. The following pandemic list pans the extremes and also offers options somewhere in between, but read and watch at your own discretion. 


Pandemic Movies 

1. 93 Days  (Based on a true story)

13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic
Source: Christie Powell/Flickr

 A Lagos based drama that tells the story of the first patient in Nigeria with Ebola and the resulting outbreak. The doctors, nurses, and hospital staff treating the prominent patient 0, a diplomat, dealing with the uncertainty of a looming deadly diagnosis and the ensuing chaos.

This film, based on a true story, shows the emotional struggle of health care professionals during a pandemic. It also does an excellent job of demonstrating how pandemics spread through workplaces, families, and throughout society. Nearly every element of a pandemic - from the politics of public information, availability of infectious disease facilities, PPE, public panic, patient rights and responsibilities, and the emotional labor of illness are touched upon in this film. 

2. Butterfly’s Dream (Romantic period drama)

This World War II period drama is a sweeping romantic tale of two young poets living with tuberculosis. Their quests for love and loyalty to the pen amidst the tragedies of illness and poverty made the 2013 film a hit among Turkish audiences. This tear-jerker manages to inspire despite the hopelessness faced by the protagonists. 

3. 28 Days Later (Zombie flick) 

13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic
Source: Mike Massaro/Flickr

This post-apocalyptic film is a stylized image of a world post-outbreak. The film takes audiences through a disastrous outbreak of a pandemic that originates with chimps. The aftermath causes the main character to wake up to a deserted London in which he has to fight infected zombies. The striking imagery of this dark new world and the gore factor make this zombie film stand out in its genre. 

4. Blindness (Art house contagion) 

This adaptation of Jose Saramago's novel of the same name debuted at Cannes film festival in 2008. As people start to go blind from a mysterious, contagious illness, they are carted off into quarantine. One woman feigns blindness to go with her husband to the quarantine facilities as authorities try to control the pandemic. As the number of the sick increases, conditions quickly deteriorate. A new social order emerges in quarantine, and it’s not a favorable one. 

5. Warm Bodies (Zombie light) 

This romantic comedy is set years after a zombie apocalypse. A zombie decides to try a different lifestyle after falling for a human girl. Later in the film, zombies and humans face a common enemy and must work together to defeat them. This movie is post-apocalyptic fun. Light and humorous, it may be just what the doctor ordered. 

6. Winter’s Tale (An exercise in escapism) 

13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic
Source: Winter's Tale/Facebook

A thief breaks into a house where a girl is dying of consumption (tuberculosis). He falls in love with her and the rest of the film is a supernatural battle between good and evil against the backdrop of classism and consumption. 

7. Perfect Sense (Cathartic) 

In this emotional film, people are experiencing a pandemic in which each episode of sickness causes the loss of a sense predicted by an episode of intense feeling. For example, losing your sense of smell is accompanied by an overwhelming bout with grief. Sprinkle in a love story between a chef and an epidemiologist, and the scene is set for a thrilling emotional journey. 

Pandemic Books

8. Typhoid Mary, Judith Walzer Leavitt

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Typhoid Mary is a recounting of what can happen at the intersection of illness, immigration, and class - three themes that often find themselves intertwined. The story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant in New York, is both captivating and cautionary. Known as the first asymptomatic typhoid fever patient, Mary infected dozens of members of the wealthy New York families she worked for, some of whom did not survive. She was scandalized and exiled to an asylum, sentenced to spend her life alone. The book raises questions of the treatment of the sick during pandemics and epidemics, as well as negative attitudes towards immigrants and the working class.

9. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald L. Geison

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This look into the otherwise private life of the famed scientist to whom we owe the rabies and anthrax vaccines, as well as the pasteurization process, allows us to see both his brilliance and his hubris. The biography uses Pasteur’s notebooks and publishings to shed light on his working process, some of which raise ethical questions. Pasteur not only used a colleague's findings but also conducted experimentation on human subjects which was questionable in its methodology. As we watch scientists labor to find a coronavirus vaccine or cure, the lessons learned in this book may provide a context with which to evaluate the process. 

10. The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio 

13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic

A Tale From The Decameron, Waterhouse, Source: Waterhouse/WikimediaCommons

This 1351 Italian masterpiece is a collection of 100 stories written following the Black Death. The stories come from Boccaccio’s brilliant characterization of 10 noble men and women who escape the plague in Florence by heading to their countryside estates. Written so many centuries ago, the themes of youth, rebellion, passion, and a love for life still ring true for modern audiences.  

11. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Otessa Moshfegh

13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic
Source: Darren Haggar/WikimediaCommons

As many people are charged with navigating the challenges of waiting out coronavirus at home, this book provides a darkly humorous take on the idea of self-care. The protagonist decides to rest for a year in order to reset her life, largely through the help of prescription medicine, with tragicomic consequences.

12. The Old Drift, Namwalli Serpell

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This critically acclaimed debut novel from Serpell sweeps the span of four generations in Zambia. Following the lives of three families of different races, the spanning narrative takes a tragic turn during the AIDS epidemic. A masterpiece that pushes readers to digest round characters and biting commentary on history and politics, this novel has drawn comparison to the next book on the list. 

13. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

13+ Books and Movies on Surviving a Pandemic
Source: Marco Pakoeningrat/Flickr

This classic love story by one of the world’s most celebrated writers tells the story of star crossed lovers. Cholera is a metaphorical theme in the book, as the illness also represents the passion that is called by the same name in Spanish, the original language of the novel. This book would later be adapted to film, and remains a popular culture reference due to its long-standing place in history. 

14. Severance, Ling Ma 

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The world comes crashing to a halt in the face of a pandemic that originates in China. Sound familiar? This 2018 satire pokes fun at capitalism and the way many of us cling to it as the main character continues to work as the world as she knows it comes to an end. 

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