Reader Response

“Monstro” and COVID-19: A Reflection On Outbreak Fiction From Mid-Pandemic


“Monstro,” a short story by Junot Díaz is a unique and timely entry into a subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, sometimes referred to as ‘cli-fi’. While the story itself was written in 2012, well before COVID-19 became a hinging factor of daily life across the world, there are numerous parallels between events that take place in the story and what’s happening now. “Monstro” is a pandemic story that has only become more relevant the further we move from its initial publication.

Monstro takes place in the Dominican Republic with a particular emphasis on the area where it borders Haiti. It follows a group of young people who are reaching adulthood in the wake of severe climate change, war, and disease ravaging the planet. The story intersperses observations on a highly contagious virus sweeping through the country with a personal narrative of the main character’s life, focusing quite regularly on his struggling relationship with his mother and his attraction to a woman who doesn’t share his romantic interest. There’s a large emphasis placed on how the characters, particularly the narrator, are just trying to live their lives regardless of what’s taking place around them as their world continues to degrade.

The characters’ ambivalence toward a uniquely deadly virus is something I find particularly interesting. One reading prompts us to assume that they’re stupid young adults just out of highschool, trying to go to college to find friends and fit in. The main character admits that conceptualizing the end of the world wasn’t the most pressing thing on his mind at the start of the story when he states, “These days everybody wants to know what you were doing when the world came to an end. Fools make up all sorts of vainglorious self-serving plep— but me, I tell the truth. I was chasing a girl” (Díaz 1). This succinctly informs the reader that our main character is something of an average contemporary person, albeit one with skewed priorities. He has no interest in starring in an apocalypse story, he’s interested in romance, and living a normal life.

However, there’s another way to analyze this element of the story. Debra J. Rosenthal wrote an article titled, “Climate-Change Fiction and Poverty Studies: Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Díaz’s “Monstro,” and Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter”.” In this article, she explores the unique relationship that climate fiction – the subgenre of speculative fiction that I mentioned earlier – explores between climate change and poverty, with an emphasis on the toll outbreaks of disease take on impoverished communities. According to the author, “‘Monstro’ cleaves a difference between the impoverished victims and the uninfected wealthy. “[…] Alex, comes from such a wealthy family that [he] was kidnapped and ransomed as a child. In contrast, the poor are forced to live in relocation camps in Haiti” (Rosenthal 281). The burdens of a warming climate and a ravenous zombie plague are clearly faced the most by those with the least. People with little space, money, or support are left behind to rot in the zombie infested camps as the wealthy continue to exist in relative safety.

While the themes of “Monstro” may feel sensationalist to readers who don’t have a shared experience to relate with, the story explores aspects of life that are quite common for people who live in poverty or otherwise disadvantaged communities. For example, when ruminating over how people initially perceived the virus, the narrator of Monstro points out that, “Everybody blamed the heat. Blamed the Calientazo. Shit, a hundred straight days over 105 degrees F. In our region alone, the planet cooking like a chimi and down to its last five trees—something berserk was bound to happen. . . . This one didn’t cause too much panic because it seemed to hit only the sickest of the sick, viktims who had nine kinds of ill already in them. You literally had to be falling to pieces for it to grab you” (Díaz 2). Díaz draws a line here with distinct clarity, one that connects the worst damage done by pandemics directly to those who larger forces across our world care less about. As media and public attention shifts to focus on some groups, in inherently leaves others out of the public consciousness. As a result, these groups receive less support an every way, and their quality of life and safety diminishes.

There is one distinct place where “Monstro” is eerily comparable to what has taken place over the past couple years through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. An article written by Thomas Hale and some of his peers titled, “A global panel database of pandemic policies (Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker)” provides tangible, quantifiable evidence that the responses various governments have had to COVID-19 have been, at best, inconsistent. According to Hale and his compatriots, initial response to the pandemic was fierce and strong, however, it weakened over the coming months, “In subsequent months, however, countries lifted policy restrictions, then, in some cases, reimposed policies in a policy see-saw as the epidemic waxed and waned” (Hale 531). As populations experienced mounting pandemic fatigue, less and less people have been willing to abide by safety measures, resulting in increased spread of the virus. This, combined with the resistant anti-vaccine sentiment held by some demographics, and by extension some public officials, has made it difficult to get the virus under control.

Díaz draws this into “Monstro” with painstaking emphasis. The narrator states early on that, “[B]ut when the experts determined that it wasn’t communicable in the standard ways, and that normal immune systems appeared to be at no kind of risk, the renminbi and the attention and the savvy went elsewhere. And since it was just poor Haitian types getting fucked up—no real margin in that” (Díaz 3). Even later, Díaz writes, “In the hospital that day: one Noni DeGraff, a Haitian epidemiologist and one of the few researchers who had been working on the disease since its first appearance[,]” (15) it is made brutally clear that there has been no consistent or supportive stance taken on the fictional pandemic. Does this start to feel familiar? Is the framework starting to come together to show us the larger picture, to hold the mirror up in front of us and reflect back?

In another article written by Thomas Hale and some of his peers titled, “Government responses and COVID-19 deaths: Global evidence across multiple pandemic waves” Hale brings up the fact that there is a noticeable relationship between government responses and the amount of deaths related directly to COVID-19. Hale says that “Our data show that government responses do indeed have a statistically robust and substantively significant relationship with deaths related to COVID-19. Moreover, this relationship endures across multiple waves of disease.” (8). According to the actual practitioners of the study, we hear that government lockdowns quantifiably save lives. This, combined with the policy flip-flop mentioned in Hale’s other work, makes a strong case that governments have handled the pandemic poorly and, as a result, have cost some denizens their lives due to mishandling of the virus. The mixture of infighting between policymakers, an adapting threat, and public fatigue have made it particularly difficult to implement an effective counter to the encroaching virus.

This article is particularly useful in relation to Thomas Hale’s other work, pointing out distinctly that consistent strong action is needed to mitigate the hazardous effects of a pandemic. This is true particularly when multiple waves of disease are consistent with such viruses. Once again, this can be seen in “Monstro” — not in a picture painted of a world where governments can unite against a virus, but in an image drawn of how the world might fracture under the weight of their nations’ inability to work together.

This is what makes the end of the story so eerie. When “Monstro” so aptly reflects how COVID-19 is affecting the world as we know it, the conclusion of Díaz’s short story is a warning.

 Because she was a God-fearing woman and because she had no idea what kind of bomb they were dropping, Dr. DeGraff took the precaution of keeping one eye shut, just, you know, in case things got Sodom and Gomorrah. Which promptly they did. The Detonation Event—no one knows what else to call it—turned the entire world white. Three full seconds. Triggered a quake that was felt all across the Island and also burned out the optic nerve on Dr. DeGraff’s right eye. (20)

How does Díaz predict the end of the world? Not with a whimper but with a bang, a world turning on the most disadvantaged parts of itself and eradicating its own mistakes without hesitation.

“Monstro” is a story I won’t soon forget. The themes of economic inequality during a global crisis are frighteningly predictive of what we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic. My further research into government responses tells a tale of uncanny familiarity to Diaz’s work. One of inadequate, sluggish response to a sweeping threat. If I had read it at initial publication or even a few years ago, it certainly wouldn’t have had the impact on me as a reader that it has now. Junot Díaz excellently manifests our broader contemporary fears in his writing as well as the reality of what it’s like to live in an ever-warming world for people who don’t have the benefit of luxury. “Monstro” was certainly relevant when it was written and relevant when it was published but it is now, many years later, more important than ever.

Works Cited

Debra J Rosenthal, Climate-Change Fiction and Poverty Studies: Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Díaz’s “Monstro,” and Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter”, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Volume 27, Issue 2, Spring 2020, Pages 268–286,

Díaz, Junot. “Monstro.” The New Yorker, 28 May 2012,

Hale, T., Angrist, N., Goldszmidt, R. et al. A global panel database of pandemic policies (Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker). Nat Hum Behav 5, 529–538 (2021).

Hale T, Angrist N, Hale AJ, Kira B, Majumdar S, et al. (2021) Government responses and COVID-19 deaths: Global evidence across multiple pandemic waves. PLOS ONE 16(7): e0253116.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book