Who’s afraid of the novel coronavirus?

Conservatives Gather At Annual CPAC Event

Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Every horror story begins with a pause, a held breath, when nobody is quite sure what to make of the unfolding situation. When’s a good time to panic? My favorites put off answering the question for as long as they can.

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about Severance, the prizewinning 2018 novel by the author Ling Ma, because of its premise: a fungal fever in China spreads across the globe and kills millions, decimating society. It feels ominous that the situation with the novel coronavirus is even passingly similar, even though Ma’s book is set in an alternate past.

In 2011, just after Occupy Wall Street, people start to get sick in Shenzhen, and it spreads from there across the world. By the time it hits New York, people…

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