Coronavirus and 'Fever': South African writer Deon Meyer looks back at his 'eerily' familiar thriller

The parallels between Meyer's 2016 'story of survival' and the Covid-19 pandemic are chilling

South African author of crime thriller novels, Deon Meyer, speaks about his work during an interview, on January 23, 2020, in his home town of Stellenbosch. - "I have survived several attempts to kill me," former South African president Jacob Zuma had claimed in one of many his rants against the corruption allegations which forced him to resign in 2018. His words drew little sympathy and inspired  bestselling thriller novelist Deon Meyer to hit out at Zuma and other corruption-tainted officials in his last book "The Last Hunt" published in 2018. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)
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South African novelist Deon Meyer has spoken about his 2016 thriller Fever, saying he wishes that he hadn't written such an accurate depiction of the coronavirus pandemic which is currently ravaging the world.

"I find no pleasure in it," said the crime fiction author and screenwriter.

"I keep thinking of the sorrow of all those thousands of people who have lost loved ones, lost their jobs, and are living in fear."

Fever is a story of survival, set in South Africa after a virus wiped out 95 per cent of the world's population. The book tells the story of the survival of a father and son, Nico and Willem, who are among the few people left in the world, as they try to build a community. 

While the world is far more decimated in his novel, four years later, some of the parallels between Meyer's Fever and the Covid-19 pandemic are still chilling: a coronavirus transmitted from animals to humans, spreading like wildfire across the globe.

In a bizarrely premonitory scenario, borders are shut, but then characters grow increasingly wary of the other as survival instincts kick in.

Fever was the culmination of so many different emotions, concerns and a lot of reading," said Meyer, 61, speaking to AFP by phone, locked-down at his southern Stellenbosch home.

"I've always loved post-apocalyptic fiction, and read the genre intensely in my 20s and 30s," he explained.

"As I became more and more aware of global warming, Ebola, the Avian Influenza (H5N1) of 1996 and the H1N1 Swine Flu virus of 2009 to 2010, I could not help but think that we live in a world where an apocalypse is a possibility."

There are a number of haunting similarities between Deon Meyer's 'Fever' and the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Atlantic Monthly Press

'Fever': How the 'eerily accurate' story formed 

Those concerns became a source of inspiration in 2012 during a flight back from New York. "I bought a collection of short stories, and read them on the plane," Meyer recalled. "One of the stories ... was post-apocalyptic and got me thinking about other possible directions the author could have taken."

By the time Meyer touched down in Cape Town, the Fever storyline had started taking shape in his head.

In the mango tree there was a bat, with a different kind of corona virus in its blood, one that could infect other people easily when inhaled, and with the ability to make them extremely ill

Over the next three years, the ex-journalist gathered scientific information to feed into his scenario.

"I needed to kill off 95 per cent of the world population, but leave all infrastructure intact," Meyer explained. "A virus seemed to be the ideal choice."

Hours of consultations with two virology experts led him to the "best candidate" for the task: a coronavirus.

"They ... gave me full details on how it could happen," said Meyer.

The trio's imaginary scenario was fleshed out into the novel's pages.

"A man somewhere in tropical Africa lay down under a mango tree," wrote Meyer in Fever. "The man's resistance was low, because he was HIV-positive and not being treated for it. There was already one corona virus in the man's blood."

"In the mango tree there was a bat, with a different kind of corona virus in its blood," he continued. "One that could infect other people easily when inhaled, and with the ability to make them extremely ill."

When the first cases of coronavirus were detected in China last December, Meyer admitted going back through his notes in shock.

"Even most of the developing countries had extensive plans for such an incident," reads another extract of Fever. "In theory, these should have worked. But nature paid no heed to theories, and nor did human fallibility."

Next up, a 'lockdown' crime novel 

As he has watched a coronavirus play out in the real world, Meyer felt that most governments had based their responses on "good scientific advice".

"So far, so good," he told AFP, alluding to US President Donald Trump as one of the "few exceptions".

But the author also feared the consequences of potential months under lockdown.

"How long will people be able to consider the greater good as more important than the survival of them and their families," he asked.

Poorer nations, including South Africa, have already been battling to keep citizens indoors, with many people living off informal work.

In Fever, that struggle blows up into a full-fledged war between survivors under the watch of a small group of humans that has engineered the virus.

Similar conspiracy theories are making the rounds of social media today, claiming the pandemic was man-made.

Meyer hoped his novel would not provide fuel for "wacko conspiracy theorists". He found solace in the fact that such people were unlikely to "read beyond a few wacko websites".

As South Africa slipped into its fourth week of lockdown and coronavirus continued to spread, Meyer knew what his next project would be.

"A crime novel," he said. "Set during the lockdown".