Julia Dauer //
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have speculated about whether cases will ebb and flow in seasonal patterns. Just this week, NPR released a podcast episode about the anticipated intersections of flu and COVID-19 in the U.S. this winter. The episode encapsulates the collision between two conflicting ways of conceptualizing illness: seasonal time and variant time. Rising flu cases follow a regular seasonal pattern, but COVID-19 is currently circulating in variant-driven waves whose temporality is less predictable. Conversation remains open about the future of COVID-19 as a seasonally recurring illness. For the time being, though, its temporalities are far from consistent.
In the face of uncertainty, seasonal explanations have staying power, for both scientific and narrative reasons. To think more carefully about seasonal disease narratives, I want to consider an example that’s very familiar to me: yellow fever epidemics in the 18th– and 19th-century U.S. Even as debate raged about the origins of yellow fever, U.S. observers consistently characterized the illness as seasonal. During Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Thomas Apel notes that observers attempting to determine the origin of the disease drew on “the time of the season and the climatic conditions” that portended epidemics. As observers agreed, “[e]ach year, the epidemics began in the late summer and continued through the autumn, the period of the year when heat, humidity, and heavy rains” abounded (22). Other “fevers” followed seasonal patterns as well and could be expected on an annual basis (16). In nontropical climates, yellow fever came in the warm summer months and abated with the frost.
Seasonal models have a built in sense of doom, as the specter of illness looms annually along a predictable timeline. In the East Coast cities of the U.S., summer and autumn became times of dread. As Charles Brockden Brown puts it in his yellow fever novel Arthur Mervyn, in such times, “seasonable flight from the city” might be undertaken to avoid illness. Seasonal models of illness often involve seasonal terror – an intensified dread associated with summer heat or, in the case of COVID-19, winter darkness.
Terrifying as they are, seasonal models also promise some relief on the horizon. When mitigation efforts are failing and modes of transmission are unknown, at least the season will eventually change. The seasonal model allows for anticipation of a time beyond the crisis, a noncatastrophic futurity. Summer and early fall might bring destructive fevers, but winter will reliably arrive, and with it, the cool weather that will end the season of disease. Conversely, for respiratory infections and other wintertime illnesses, spring can be looked to as a time of reduced disease transmission. Flu season ends.
While seasons come in fluctuating patterns, variant time is structured by rapidity and uncertainty. It’s helpful to situate variant time in relationship to what Priscilla Wald calls the “outbreak narrative.” As Wald writes, outbreaks of contagious illness are often narrated using “a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment” (2). The outbreak narrative differs from the seasonal narrative because it revolves around an “emerging infection.” It’s also a narrative of unfolding crisis, one that casts blame elsewhere, reifies national borders, and celebrates the curative power of science in its resolution. In the case of COVID-19, the scientific solution of vaccination has not ended the pandemic. Issues including inequitable global vaccine distribution, vaccine hesitancy, and viral mutation have prevented lasting containment. Instead, the pandemic continues along the lines of variant time, recycling the early stages of the outbreak narrative again and again as new variants emerge and spread, blame is cast, and suffering unfurls along a set of unpredictable timeframes.
Of course, seasonality has become increasingly unpredictable, too. Climate change throws seasonal expectations into disarray. Even in 1793, discussions of yellow fever included concerns about potentially ominous changes in the U.S. climate. Jan Golinski notes that during that epidemic, fears circulated about the “extension of summer heat into the autumn” and the possible prolongation of the fever season (154). In 2021, the volatile cycles of variant time are coinciding with disturbing seasonal abnormalities. Variant time may be uncertain, but seasonal time doesn’t feel very reliable, either.
Still, as a narrative structure, the seasonal model bears a promise of cyclic relief. Variant time can run parallel to or against seasonal shifts, disrupting anticipated periods of disease abatement. Although Omicron seems poised to coincide with the winter flu season, Delta began surging in the U.S. in August, when a seasonal model might have suggested the country was still in the clear. This phase of the COVID-19 pandemic features narratives that oscillate between seasonal time and variant time, towards future paths unknown.
Cover Image: “Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) flowers at autumn,” Wikimedia Commons.
Apel, Thomas A. Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: Science and the Yellow Fever Controversy in the Early American Republic. Stanford University Press, 2016.
Golinski, Jan. “Debating the Atmospheric Constitution: Yellow Fever and the American Climate.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 49, no. 2, 2016, pp. 149-165.
Murray, Christopher J. L. and Peter Piot. “The Potential Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Will SARS-CoV-2 Become a Recurrent Seasonal Infection?” JAMA, vol. 325, no. 13, 2021, pp. 1249-1250.
“The Winter Twindemic: Flu and COVID.” Short Wave from NPR. 14 December 2021.
Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press. 2008.