Commentary: COVID-19. Truth can be as scary as fiction

Commentary: COVID-19. Truth can be as scary as fiction
File photo/CHEK
People wear masks in downtown Victoria on June 16, 2020.

Be careful what you read during this pandemic. I was looking for something to distract me, a good book, a thriller perhaps, and a friend suggested I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It is an amazing thriller. It proceeds at a breakneck pace, starting with a murder in a New York flophouse, and turns into an international race against – wait, a killer virus.

I was hooked. In this case the virus is smallpox, and a terrorist has synthetically produced a strain that no vaccine can stop, and it will essentially wipe out half the United States. Unless, of course, a former spy can stop the drug being introduced into pharmaceuticals.

In short, the smallpox could be in your cold medication.

I am hooked on the book, but not distracted. I got to thinking that no terrorist could have so disrupted the planet as COVID-19. Already, there have been more than eight million cases worldwide and 447,000 deaths.

Even the planes resumed flying soon after 9-11, and the restaurants didn’t close, commerce didn’t stop, concerts weren’t cancelled around the world.

Even here on sleepy Vancouver Island, where we usually feel somewhat distanced from the roar elsewhere, our lives have been turned upside down.

I Am Pilgrim suggests that terrorism and a virus could disrupt the planet so massively, that it may be the next weapon of mass destruction.

The Russians, in real life, have already used infections effectively to sow panic in a western community. The BBC has been running a three-part drama called The Salisbury Poisonings, based on the public health crisis that followed the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former spy, and his daughter Yulia in the Wiltshire cathedral city.

Two Russian agents were identified eventually as the poisoners. They had daubed a synthetic nerve agent called Novichok on the former spy’s front door handle. Father and daughter are found slumped in a park, and soon it is discovered that they had been poisoned.

Everywhere they have touched in the town is cordoned off. You only have to touch where someone else has touched to be infected.  A young police officer, Sgt. Nick Bailey, touches that front door handle and is eventually vomiting and hallucinating and then fighting for his life in hospital.

One young woman dies. Dawn Sturgess, a mother with serious addiction problems, and her partner are eventually infected by the discarded vial, which they take to be perfume.

The chief medical officer, Tracy Daszkiewicz, is brought in early to assess the situation, even before authorities know what the mysterious substance is, and quickly locks down just about everything. If she hadn’t done so, dozens or hundreds could have died.

Tracy is our Bonnie Henry. She got out in front of the crisis and settled everyone down. She took quick and decisive action to stop the spread of the disease.

And, just like now, she averted panic. She didn’t say “Stay Calm, Stay Safe, Be Kind” but her message was just as effective. She had self-doubts, but she reassured the public. And it worked, even though she continued to beat herself up over the one death that she couldn’t prevent. Tracy’s boyfriend had found the vial, in a perfume bottle, while dumpster diving.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories online about the genesis of COVID-19, but the accepted wisdom right now is that it was either a mistake in a Chinese laboratory or a tragic fluke in a market. We may never know.

An estimated 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century. Think about that figure.

300 million.

The disease was eradicated in 1975. A three-year-old girl in Bangladesh was found to have the disease. She was isolated and recovered, and the community around her cordoned off.

Samples of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, have been stored in some labs, causing some to be concerned that terrorists could get hold of the virus and start spreading it. That, in essence, is the basis of I Am Pilgrim.

I haven’t got to the end of the book yet, but I’m betting the good guys will win and the world will be saved.

The libraries, here, are going to be reopening at the end of the month, so reserve a copy.

As to  COVID-19. Well, let’s all hope – and pray – that it has a happy ending. Truth and fiction have become way too close for comfort.

Ian Haysom’s coronavirus diary will appear here regularly.

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