We can name the moment the COVID-19 pandemic reached the center of the American consciousness: around 8:30 p.m., Central Standard Time, on Wednesday, March 11. In the span of a single hour, the president addressed the nation, the National Basketball Association suspended all its games, and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the illness. Within 24 hours, every major sports league had followed suit, and the prospect of winning $72 in the office March Madness pool was officially stripped from workers across the country. Things, as they say, got real. Since then, they’ve only gotten worse.

In the shadow of the Cold War, C. S. Lewis was asked to address how humanity should live in an atomic age. Many of us have forgotten the astonishing fear that gripped the world then—some of us are not old enough to have known it. Yet the terrifying force of nuclear power made the idea of humanity’s extinction seem plausible in a new way. Or so people thought, at least. In his response to such sentiments, Lewis frames the atom bomb as a revelation, an apocalypse, that disclosed how fragile the world has always been. Look beyond the question of the bomb and we hear the scientists tell us that nothingness is where the universe is going to end anyway. The atomic bomb, Lewis writes, served to “forcibly remind us of the sort of world we are living in, and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, we were beginning to forget.” The imminent threat of extinction has woken us “from a petty dream,” he went on, “and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

A pandemic strikes at the heart of our illusory security in a way that even an atom bomb cannot. Regardless of how imminent it ...

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