In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, seven women and three men take turns telling stories for 10 days while hiding from the Black Death — that “last Pestilentiall mortality universally hurtfull to all that beheld it”. In a crushing indictment of how little things have changed since 1655, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year recorded how Londoners lost their wits when the pestilence came to their city. They turned to the Bible, astrologers and all manner of quackery to try to make sense of the terror on the streets.

The literature of epidemics, we now know, is written not so much to signal the end of civilisation, but the end of a particular way of life. It’s a response to tragedy that provides ways for absorbing trauma...

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