The Coronavirus Novel: An Israeli Author Wrote a Book on the 2020 Pandemic 23 Years Ago

In her science fiction novel ‘2020’ published in 1987, an Israeli author described a global pandemic much like the coronavirus. Now she explains why she went there and how she managed to get things so right

Neta Halperin
Hamutal Shabtai and the original cover of her 1987 book '2020.'
Hamutal Shabtai and the original cover of her 1987 book '2020.' Appreciation for the book has revived in recent years, even before the coronavirus emerged.Credit: Ilya Melnikov and Keter publishing house

When January began, as yet another election loomed in Israel and with climate change and other burning issues commandeering the public’s attention, Hamutal Shabtai said to herself – You see, 2020 is here and nothing you wrote about happened.

Indeed, “2020,” the science fiction novel that Shabtai published in 1997 (Keter Press, in Hebrew), about a mysterious virus that threatens to doom humanity to extinction wasn’t on anybody’s radar for the year. She certainly never imagined how prescient her futuristic dystopian fantasy written 23 years ago would prove to be.

“The Chinese are behaving very much in keeping with my script. The similarity is remarkable,” says Shabtai, 64. “It began with television reports about villages in China where people are smashing the roads so no one can come into the village. I thought, that’s just like in the book, places cutting themselves off... That’s where it started.”

Then pictures started to appear of crews wearing what looks like white spacesuits, disinfecting the streets. They bring to mind the inspectors of the “Hygienic Inspection Authority,” the all-powerful quasi-police force in Shabtai’s book. And then reports leaked to social media began to surface, describing journalists and doctors being silenced. “That looked like an attempt to control the information, just like in the book, in which the people are fed distorted and partial information,” Shabtai says. And reports that the Chinese government ordered coronavirus casualties to be cremated, in order to prevent infection, recalled the “Ash People/Ash Men” in the book, shaven-head troops who circle the homes of the dead on motorcycles and torch them and everything inside.

Adjusting to life in the age of pandemic in China.
Adjusting to life in the age of pandemic in ChinaCredit: TINGSHU WANG/REUTERS

As the virus spread beyond China, grounding planes and leading whole cities and countries to lock down, that resembled the “Healthy Area” in Shabtai’s book – her term for areas within in the World Health Organization’s “Lockdown Area,” whose inhabitants are subject to strict testing, while the rest of the world is left to fend for itself outside.

Why did you choose to set your book in 2020?

“I wanted to create an unreal, fictitious experience that takes place far in the future and is told in a realistic tone. So I chose a date in the next millennium. Why 2020 specifically? For fairly silly reasons: It sounds good in English, it’s easy to remember, it’s such a pretty round number that it sounds kind of fantastical to begin with.”

You also foresaw the social and psychological dynamics amid a pandemic.

“The dynamic of a pandemic, which requires constant testing and separations, arouses the feelings that really do appear in the book in us all. The anxiety that someone you want to be close to, or whom you are close to, could end up among the ill, gives rise to a paranoia. It’s like in vampire stories, where the victim who is infected and afflicted is also the one who could infect you, as if he already belongs to the forces of evil. This is what the illness does. The victim is also the demon, and fear grips all of us.

“It’s not just people – Countries are also relating to each other with paranoia. The whole psychological array that arises in the wake of a plague is already happening. The feeling that you’re a cog in a dictatorial system that is tracking you, ignoring your wishes, forcing you to do things that infuriate you. I didn’t imagine it would be this way [even though] I predicted it correctly back then.”

Obsessive fear of infection

A bit like the HIV virus, which has killed close to 25 million people over the last 30 years, the virus at the center of “2020” is also transmitted via bodily fluids. Shabtai, a psychiatrist at Shalvata Hospital for 30 years, began writing the book in 1987, a decade after she began studying medicine at Tel Aviv University. Her original concept was to write a Hollywood screenplay. “One morning I got up for my shift on the ward and these scenes from a play or screenplay suddenly came to mind, and I sat down to write them,” she says. “Later I took a year’s leave from work to finish it, then I went back to Shalvata.”

Terminally ill victims of Aids are pushed in wheelchairs as they participate in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on Sunday, Oct. 11, 1987.
Terminally ill victims of Aids are pushed in wheelchairs as they participate in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on Sunday, Oct. 11, 1987.Credit: Scott Stewart / AP

The AIDS epidemic was at its height then. “I was quite focused on the AIDS epidemic for years. Some of what I described in the book was just speculation on my part and some things I encountered with patients. AIDS-phobia, for example – the obsessive fear of infection that causes people to get tested every few months or weeks – I wrote about that in the book, and 10 years later I also encountered it as a psychiatrist.

Chillingly, the great fear of the book’s protagonist, a young doctor named Andy Roberts, is that the virus will mutate into a much more lethal strain that spreads by respiratory transmission. “2020” is the point of no return, the year when the experts predict that, without a vaccine, there will be no way to prevent pandemic.

The plot opens in 2020. The plague has been raging since the 1980s. In New York, where Roberts lives and is working to find a vaccine for the disease, hundreds are infected every day. The infected are sent to “The Center for Healing” – a fenced-in zone that resembles a penal colony to which opponents of the regime are also sent.

Nobody from either group ever returns to the Healthy Area, and no one knows what becomes of them. The rest of the city residents live in an Orwellian situation, tested every day for the virus. Drugs, alcohol and homosexual relations are totally banned, and extramarital relations are considered a serious hygienic violation. Clubs and bars are considered abominations. Psychotherapy is considered obscene because of the possibility that unacceptable erotic thoughts might be expressed. Porn films feature robots in the starring roles. The daily health news is broadcast every night and housewives are addicted to shows about cleaning products and disinfectants. People are surveilled and phone calls and computer files are tracked.

The hygiene status that everyone aspires to maintain is extremely fragile. As soon as antibodies against the virus appear in your blood — a sign of infection — you’re living on borrowed time.

One day Roberts discovers that for the first time in years, the guinea pigs he’s using in his experiments are surviving much longer than anticipated: The cure he vowed to find for the disease following his brother’s death suddenly seems to be within reach. But when clinical trials in humans begin, strange things start to happen. Why are the participants in the trial dying one after the other? Is it an unexpected side effect of the drug therapy, or is there a more sinister reason – does someone wants the trial to fail, and stymie hope of a cure?

“Many parts of me somehow found their way into the book,” Shabtai says. “From my love for history, to my interest in epidemics and disease and all kinds of psychological conditions that derive from them, to pondering whether the only way to protect people from a pandemic is through totalitarian rule and how awful it would be if there were such a system. Even the question of whether it would be a good thing to have a cure – because then people wouldn’t be afraid to get infected and the disease would persist.”

‘Narcissistic frenzy’

The cover of '2020.'
The cover of '2020.'Credit: Keter publishing house

Asked which characters she identifies with, she cites Benjamin the psychiatrist, Andy the doctor, Linda his wife (who resents his work as a doctor during the pandemic, reflecting “different obsessive sides of me related to hatred of men or fear of men,” Shabtai says. She also identifies with Claire the divorcee, and with Curt Schmidt: “the mega-tycoon who wants to rule the world and play God reflects various fascist and megalomaniacal tendencies in me.”

If the times were normal, we would have talked over a cup of coffee. Instead we talk by phone in installments. Shabtai is staying at the home of friends in Hadar Yosef while her 22-year-old daughter Avigayil, who studies medicine in Prague, is in isolation in their apartment in Kfar Sava.

The virtual meeting felt personal anyway: Shabtai is brilliant, amusing and open, answering every question without hesitation. Like many talented women, she tends to sabotage herself. When we tried to set a date for our call and I told her I was in the middle of reading the book, she apologized profusely, as if she’d imposed a huge burden on me.

“One of the biggest mistakes I made in the book was the way I got so attached to every word in it,” she says. “I was in this narcissistic frenzy where it was like everything in there is perfect and nobody better touch my baby. And it’s a shame, because the book is quite long.”

The book, her first, is dedicated to Shabtai’s father, the literary giant Yaakov Shabtai. “But I always wanted to write,” she says. “I grew up in this world. Ours was a literary family: My maternal grandfather, David Negbi, was the founder and editor-in-chief of Sifriyat Hapoalim. At my grandparents’ home on the kibbutz there were huge amounts of books and I remember my grandfather sitting there editing, carefully marking all kinds of punctuation in books, as befitting a person with obsessive traits, which is common in our family.”

Shabtai remembers her father writing verse when she was six or seven years old. The family lived at Kibbutz Merhavia then. “My mother taught education at Seminar Hakibbutzim and came home mainly on the weekends. A lot of the time my father was the only one with me,” she says. “I would come into his room, which was like this little cabin, and the whole time, from the afternoon siesta until dinner, we would spend together, going around the kibbutz, visiting friends, joking around. He would tell me stories – about his childhood, a lot of stories from the bible, which he loved, and he mostly liked to talk about his mother’s cooking. We’d listen to  children’s songs on the radio together and he would write alternative verses to what they played on the show and send them to them. We were very close, or we became close, I’m not sure, probably both.”

In the summer of 1967, the family moved to Tel Aviv. Another daughter, Orly (now a clinical psychologist), was born. Yaakov Shabtai would sit at his desk and type on his typewriter while his daughter would go over the drafts of the plays and stories he wrote. Sometimes he would consult with her. “He consulted with everyone,” she hastens to add. “Of course, as a child I thought he only consulted with me and I felt very special. He was just the kind of person who tended to be indecisive so he looked to others for help. It was the same in his writing, especially with ‘Past Continuous.’ He would pace the house reciting dialogue that he wrote to see how it sounded, or he would recite the poems he wrote to hear the cadence, and I knew exactly how he was building the rhymes, based on the syllables.”

When Shabtai talks about her father, her voice fills with love and longing. She also laughs a lot when she thinks about him. “We were very close,” she repeats. “Not just at the kibbutz. In the first years in Tel Aviv, Mom also worked really hard and we were together a lot. It’s something she did through all the years, and she was also very involved in so-called self-fulfillment. It was like an ideal in our house, that you do what’s really important to you. Everyone helps one another with this.”

‘2020,’ the sequel?

At some point Shabtai realized that in the format of a Hollywood screenplay, her work would stay dormant in a drawer, so she decided to turn it into a book. She sent the manuscript to Haim Pesach, then the editor at Keter Press.

“When ‘Past Continuous’ [by Shabtai’s father] came out, and everyone was wondering what to make of this odd creation, I was the first to write a review that was neither scathing nor groveling, in the Haaretz literary supplement,” Pesach says. “So I naturally had a connection with Hamutal and I knew her well. I was very surprised by the manuscript, but I understood the need to depart as far as possible from her father’s writing.”

The book “2020” was published in 1997 and got mixed reviews. Shabtai: “Some of my friends said it was very interesting but that the subject matter was hard to relate to.”

And science fiction was largely on the literary margins then.

“Totally. Some people were very into it but it was still a totally marginal thing. At the time, I was interviewed quite a lot, and the book got some notice, just because I was the ‘daughter of’ – I knew that was why. And after that it died. For more than 20 years, I’ve thought of this book as a failure. Every so often I’d notice it lying on the shelf and tell myself – okay, you worked hard on it, you thought it might turn into something, but it didn’t go anywhere. You need to acknowledge the reality. I’m past the bad times when it hurt me to think I’m not the great and talented writer I hoped to be, compared to my father who was such a major writer.”

Yet appreciation for the book has revived in recent years, even before the coronavirus emerged. Now, following the surge of interest in the book and the media attention it has attracted, Keter was quick to publish a new edition, which is also available for purchase in digital form. Shabtai even hesitantly admits that after the book first came out, she put together a “basic outline” for a sequel.

So maybe this is the time to pull out that outline and prophesy what fate holds in store for us in 2050?

“The problem is always time. First I thought I’d have time for it when my daughter went into the army, then I said I’d do it when I retire. Who knows – I’m in the high-risk group. But if I come out of this pandemic unscathed, maybe that’s what I’ll do.”