I have approximately six million books on my bookshelf, plus a small dictionary sitting stoutly alongside my collection of slender e-readers: a 1977 first-generation Kindle with grayscale display, a Paperwhite, a backlit Kindle Fire, and several spares for emergencies. (“Tablet alert! I’ve left my Kindle on the bus again.”)
The subtitle on my dictionary’s spine reads “Define Your World.” Mine is a round blue planet, and when something goes viral, ‘it spreads rapidly through a planet’s population by being frequently shared with a small number of individuals.’ An event like that has come to define our world for over a year now.
Do you recall where you were when you first heard the word coronavirus? There are supposedly certain events in most people’s lives that will always be memorable location-wise: for example, I was a guest at Barcelona Zoo — no comments please — looking at Snowflake, the only known albino gorilla, when he handed me a banana, and I was in a plane en route to Dallas Love Field Airport, as it was then called, when President Kennedy was shot. I kid you not. Not much love in the air in Texas that Friday, even though the next day was my birthday.
Coronavirus was first reported from Wuhan on 31st December 2019 — Happy New Year — and at first it seemed like faraway news, of no more importance than someone sneezing in a supermarket, remember that?
It wasn’t even mentioned on television until January 12, as I was sitting at 5am on Sunday morning watching the news eating cornflakes, you know what I mean. Even in my sleepy state I was cheered by the assurance that it would be nothing like the SARS outbreak in 2003 (when I was working in Hong Kong) which killed 700 people. They got that right, unfortunately.
The trouble was, at this point in history, the world had become to a large extent disease-blasé. Most known illnesses did what it said on the tin, inasmuch as they were known quantities and could be treated as such.
We were living in the age of creams and gels and ointments and lotions and potions and vitamin pills. And castor oil if you misbehaved, it tasted foul. And Elastoplast, ‘sticking plaster’ we used to call it, what innocents we were, it never stuck.
You had a headache, you took an aspirin. You suffered from indigestion, perhaps Gaviscon would cure it. If you lost your mind, your wife could always buy a straitjacket. Life was much simpler then.
No one told Covid-19 (as it came to be called) the rules. The virus didn’t play fair. It was sneaky and furtive as well as everywhere and malicious. Doctors in jungles in old war films would sniff a wounded soldier’s infected limb and say, “Afraid it’s gangrene, old chap, that leg will have to come off.” But coronavirus disease causes loss of smell, and nowadays the doc would probably just reach for his tin of Elastoplast, and both doctor and patient might die.
The situation isn’t all bad. For the first time in our lives we can save mankind by staying at home in front of the TV and ordering food online, bravely ignoring any harm we may be inflicting on our own waistlines. Listen, that’s what elasticated trousers are for, isn’t it? And box sets of The Sopranos and The Crown?