COVID-19 Meets Shen Fever
Updated: Jun 4
Throughout my learning of the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19, I keep returning to the novel Severance by Ling Ma. Its premise is similar to our current reality: Shen Fever breaks out in China and spreads to the U.S. with the majority of cases in New York. A Shen Fever pamphlet explains, “In its initial stages, Shen Fever is difficult to detect [. …] patients are often unaware they have contracted Shen Fever” (148), mirroring the asymptomatic silent-spreaders of coronavirus. In contrast to COVID-19, Shen Fever is not caused by a virus but by fungal spores disseminated to the U.S. on goods shipped from China.
Shen Fever manifests neither with a cough nor an actual fever, both markers of COVID-19, but rather with behavioral symptoms such as repetition of “rote, everyday tasks” (19). Ma further writes, “the fevered were creatures of habit, mimicking old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades [. ...] They could operate the mouse of a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants” (28).
The reader sees Shen Fever unfold through Candace’s viewpoint. Candace continues her work in publishing even as her colleagues, and the rest of New York, either flee or succumb to the infection. Gradually New York City shuts down. The subway halts, office buildings empty, and the few workers remaining—a taxi driver, a retail associate—fall into behavioral loops they are powerless to resist.
Candace suspects nostalgia may be the trigger that awakens the dormant infection. However, Bob, the leader of a group Candace joins traveling west, compares the fevered to the threat of zombies: “One zombie can be easily killed, but a hundred zombies is another issue. Only amassed do they really pose a threat. This narrative then, is not about any individual entity per se, but about an abstract force: the force of the mob, of mob mentality. Perhaps it’s better known these days as the hive mind” (29). Here Ling Ma hints that what humanity is up against is not merely a fungus, but a figurative infection. We are the hosts of a collective, parasitic unconscious that drives us to serve the machinations that run society. Those with Shen Fever are not the ones who create and perpetuate the hive mind, but the ones who die by it.
As social distancing upends routine, work, and play, as people hoard toilet paper and pantry items and guns, as the economy reacts and unemployment escalates and businesses wither, as the hive mind goes to sleep, I yearn to revert to normalcy. Give back the bees that buzz in my brain and yours!
Yet I know we won’t be able to go back to living like we did before COVID-19. Just because we survive a disaster does not mean it causes no damage, though we may long for routines from before. Ma writes, “When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction” (29). As coronavirus infects us, we do not succumb to our manufactured lifestyle; rather COVID-19 steals the momentum that maintained a system built on artifice, artifice that Ma’s ever-practical Candace maneuvers without sentiment. The hive mind sleeps and we jar awake, wondering only how much inertia can we muster to propel the system again. Through Severance Ling Ma alerts the reader of the fictitious world, and shows through Candace the spirit to rise above it.