“This is not the end of the world,
This is just us taking over.”
– (A random motorist’s t-shirt slogan,
seen on 18th March 2020)
Biological weapons & bat-eaters
It started with whispers surrounding the dining table. While my relatives chow down on platters of poultry and pork, they denigrated and criticized the citizens of mainland China for their rampant consumption of rare animals and wildlife, leading to their current situation, as a sort of karma for their debauchery.
This was back in January 2020, during the Chinese New Year festivities, and as we dine in the comfort of our homes, news spread like wildfire about the escalating horrors in China, about a new and dangerous virus, what we then called the Wuhan pneumonia. Some said it was a biological weapon issued by the Chinese government. Conspiracy theories abound. Asians were attacked.
With the arrival of February came news of total lockdowns in various provinces of China, rumors of the mistreatment of the Chinese citizens by their government. And then the spread into other countries: Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and most horrifyingly, the Southeast Asian region: Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philipines… and then Malaysia, our home country.
No one knew what to do about Covid-19. No one knew if they should do anything about it.
And then the mass gathering in Malaysia happened, where according to official statistics, more than ten thousand people gathered in the outlying suburbs in Kuala Lumpur for a religious event. While the participants slept and ate together in the crowded venue, the virus stewed and spread in the air-conditioned hallways of the building.
Racial and ethnic tensions arose. “Who is to blame here? Who brought the virus here?” “Why did you guys go ahead with the event, knowing damn well we shouldn’t have mass gatherings now?” “It is your own mother country that created this virus, you have no right to criticize us!” As if such questions, such pointed remarks can solve anything at this point. When truth can alter and shift in a turn of phrase, a figure of speech, who is to say what is true and what is not? Who, and what, sets the benchmark for truth? Is it the ones who sat high upon their thrones, squabbling and bickering amongst themselves upon trivialities, or the masses whose histrionics and hysterics ruled the day?
Nevertheless, we carry on with our lives, acting as if nothing had happened, because that was all we could do, and because to admit that it has indeed happened is to admit that we all faced the chance to die. And the air tremored with a vague unease.
“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
“In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists; they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”
– Albert Camus, “The Plague” (pp. 35)
Who coughs there?
I remember myself going out to malls during this period, despite myself knowing that with the outbreak going on, I should probably just stay indoors. But I went out nonetheless. Because what is a virus? Protein, DNA, a bunch of molecules tied up together into a stupid shape, virtually undetectable, odorless, formless, a thing that I can’t even touch or see with my own eyes.
It is the same thoughts I imagined went through a lot of the citizens of Chernobyl in Pripyat. When the reactor core of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, they perceive it as another industrial disaster. Nothing much, no biggie. In Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Chernobyl Prayers”, people wandered around amidst nuclear fallout, touching and hugging others who were irradiated, not because they haven’t been warned not to do so, but simply because they can’t comprehend the consequences. Their husbands were lying there, faces melted to the point of being unrecognizable, so what does it matter if they hugged them, or if they laid by their side to accompany them in their last minutes?
We, like they, can’t fathom the fact that radioactivity (a bunch of atoms) or viruses (a bunch of molecules) can destroy us. Things so small, so insignificant that can burn us or drown us from the inside out. And as our bodies betray ourselves, we die wondering “how the hell did that happen?” It is an existential terror to be forced to admit that we can be killed by things we couldn’t see coming. Unlike a gun pointed at our face, or a knife in the hands of a murderer, we feel powerless, with no control whatsoever of our fates.
“Nobody as yet had really acknowledged to himself what the disease connoted. … They were worried and irritated – but these are not the feelings with which to confront plague.”
“So they went on strolling about the town as usual and sitting at the tables on cafe terraces.”
– Albert Camus, “The Plague” (pp. 73-74)
But as I went to these malls, and as I walked through its hallways, I heard the coughs of others, small coughs, loud coughs, or I issued a cough from my own throat, and then I flinched. I swiveled my head to seek its source, as I imagined others might have done the same. And when the coughs subsided I breathed in relief. And then I strolled on in the midst of the crowd.
Heavy lies the crown
March is almost ending, and we are staring down at the prospect of an unknowable future. On 16th March 2020, the citizens of Malaysia were notified of a Movement Control Order (MCO). People are forced to adapt to an alien lifestyle, to be forced to stay at home when they would rather go to work, to endure rather than to proactively fight it, even if a pandemic is all about a battle of endurance.
A day after the announcement, we witnessed shops and supermarkets emptied by people panic buying every necessity imaginable, from meat in the freezers, to toilet rolls in the aisles (why?). And then we saw citizens traveling back to their hometowns from cities right before the MCO is to take effect on 18th March.
And when the dust settled, and the MCO began, we still saw people moving about, gathering in crowds, eating and lounging in restaurants and cafes, neglecting the order. And when the government enforces and tightens its laws, we rebelled and flailed around to show disobedience, of a refusal to follow along. Maybe this is due to the lack of coherence when it comes to the information issued by the government, or maybe this is due to people behaving in ways that are self-centered and out of a lack of awareness of social responsibility, I am not entirely sure at this point.
The numbers kept climbing, and with each passing day I woke up with a feeling of unreality. Because to tell the truth none of the things happening in the world right now felt tangible, it all seemed like scenarios plucked straight out of a Stephen King novel or a survival horror flick.
I read a lot nowadays. It’s one of the things I can do to pass time while all of us sealed ourselves off from our routine social and working lives. I saw Albert Camus’ “The Plague”, sitting there on my shelf for almost six years, and decided to give it a shot. And I found that none of this is new (in preparation for the book Camus researched much of the epidemics in written history).
The virus can mutate and evolve to become the most efficient killing machine ever existed on this earth. But people don’t change that much. From the earliest plagues to ebola and the age of the coronavirus, we react much the same way as our ancestors, with bewilderment, anger, and then indifference. There are the same panics and a slide into monotony as the epidemic became a routine part of life.
Of course, things can always get worse, and there are no guarantees against an event of this magnitude, and what is originally a two-week measure of enforced social distancing can easily turn into a one-month, a two-month measure. What ensues will be economic devastation to many of us and the halting of most human activities.
But like all the plagues before, and all the plagues after, it will be over, in one way or another. Either we wing it out with stoic endurance, or we let the plague consume us and the human race will wither out. But there’s always hope. The world doesn’t lack its share of optimists, and in times such as these, we need all the hope we can get. Common decency can be enough, solidarity can be enough, enough to make a difference.
It’s raining now as I write this. It has been raining for four days straight. The sky overcast in a dull shade of grey, all color sucked out of our surroundings, the branches that swayed in the downpour, the steel and concrete towers foreboding in the distance, standing vigil over empty towns, and the lonesome cars that sped through the haunted freeways. Some nights can feel eerie in its silence, unused to silence as the cities of the world always are. Now and then the barking of a dog, echoing through the quiet suburbs. And the raindrops trickle down in rivulets across the whitewashed walls and the windowpanes. Puddles on the uneven tarmac. Me standing behind the grills of the gate, gazing out at the parting clouds, revealing the soft glow of the stars.
The rain will pass. The plague too will pass. And we stood still in our waning.
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
– Albert Camus, “The Plague” (pp. 121)
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