I’m not sure how I missed this new word when it originally surfaced. An article by Ed Yong, published in The Atlantic on April 28, 2022, under the headline “We Created the ‘Pandemicene,’” may have been the word’s first appearance in a general-interest publication. (Note the quotation marks, a signal that the word is novel.) But as early as January 2021 the Science and Justice Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, had launched a Pandemicene Podcast, so it’s possible that UCSC coined the term, a seamless blend of “pandemic” and the -cene combining form that signifies “geological epoch.”
Logo of the Pandemicene Project at the University of California, Santa Cruz
What finally got my attention was a “Post-Normal” column in the February 26, 2023, issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine by David Wallace-Wells. The headline in the table of contents is “The Pandemicene Era” (gift link).
Wallace-Wells is not sanguine about lessons learned from Covid-19:
[T]he country didn’t turn the page so much as limp forward, through a fog of exhaustion and loneliness and long Covid, into a dawn of a new period in which the coronavirus has recreated for most as an everyday threat but may well nevertheless continue as gothic background noise, killing thousands of Americans every year.
“In 2020 we were panicked,” Wallace-Wells writes; “now we’re exhausted.”
The state of the “institutional public-health apparatus” in the U.S. is dire, writes Wallace-Wells. Many doctors and nurses have left the profession in the last three years. And “[b]illions of dollars of funding for things like air-filtration systems in schools have gone unspent.” Meanwhile, new pandemics that cross over from animals to humans are not just possible but likely.
This is not to say that, in facing any potential new pandemic, failure is inevitable. But even a limited outbreak, successfully contained through mitigation or outraced through rapid vaccine production, would still represent a grim premonition—an unmistakable signal to many that the world has now entered what epidemiologists have been memorably calling the Pandemicene.
Scientists have been coining -cene compounds since the 1830s, when the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell divided the Tertiary Epoch into the Eocene, Miocene, Pliocene, and New Pliocene (Holocene) Periods. Prior to “Pandemicene,” the most recent -cene coinage was Anthropocene, the age of significant human impact on Earth. That term was coined independently by two scientists, one Dutch and one from the U.S., in the 1980s, but hasn’t yet been officially approved by international geological bodies.
For a look back at the impact of Covid-19 on New Yorkers, see Jon Mooallem’s article, also in the February 26 Times Sunday Magazine, on an oral-history project at Columbia University (gift link). The word pandemicene does not appear, but the words exhausted and dread and disillusioned do. The black-and-white photographs by Ashley Gilbertson are stark and moving.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.