To Cough or Not to Cough

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

And the question is: when I pick up the phone, do I mention the ‘C’ word – (as in coronavirus or COVID-19)? Or can we talk about something else: pretend we are living in a bubble so far removed from the epicentre of the drama as to make us virtually immune? Scenes from our local supermarkets would suggest otherwise – or else everyone in Adelaide has a chronic dose of gastro and a craving to bake. We are told there should be no hugging and kissing in case of infection, but closely packed hoards queuing at Coles are to be expected. So many stories, so much panic, it has been hard to decide what is wise advice and what is verging on the ridiculous.

Containing an airborne virus on a global scale is not an easy task in anyone’s book. As we worry about every sniffle, take our temperatures three times a day and try to decide whether that headache at three in the morning is because of anxiety, COVID-19 or a possible brain tumour, the stories from abroad are so thickly spread through the newspapers that Royal dilemmas and Brexit have been totally out-manoeuvred.

We are not in total lock down in South Australia. Warnings are largely about social distancing, self-isolating and no unnecessary travel. Be cautious. Stay calm. Like a clam.

I like the safety of our small, seaside town. Coming to the city is scary, but I need to collect my new glasses. Reading is our only occupation now and my old glasses are giving me headaches. Suddenly I am acutely aware of everything I touch.

I see my parents for an afternoon and worry whether I have passed on the virus through the fresh salad I have made. They are in the danger zone age-group, and my father has asthma.

I drop in on my aunt. She is on her own and would like some company. She is also in the danger zone, so we don’t touch. We sit in the garden, several feet apart and drink wine and gossip and giggle. My son picks me up later and fixes her iPad so she can watch all the concerts she has downloaded but can’t hear. Then I worry that she didn’t wipe down the iPad after we left.

My daughter and her household have been self-isolating and working from home for a fortnight since she and her partner got colds that may or may not have been COVID-19. Just as they are set to escape the house, he is sick again. Can he take the test, if only to put everyone’s mind at rest? Or is it simply a change of season cold, a time when more viruses run amok than we can count?

It seems unfair that any other diseases or viruses should even get a cameo performance while COVID-19 has centre stage. Earlier reports have suggested that pollution is a bigger killer than this mealy-mouthed old virus. Reports from Madrid, Milan, New York suggest otherwise, but while we are being bombarded by the press (is nothing else happening in the world?) we seem to be in a relatively secure bubble. My greatest problem is finding anyone to sell me toilet paper, pasta or flour.

After weeks of round-the-clock news about the corona virus, I feel I will be forever mired in a swamp of inflammatory language that is starting to drive me crazy. Maybe I risk being blasé, but sometimes I wonder if this is simply nature’s way of keeping a balance. Particularly as mankind seems intent on self-destruction. I received this message on Facebook recently (the stage directions are mine):

Mankind: (in a whiny voice) There’s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.

Mother Nature: (sharply) Here’s a virus. Practice.

Have you ever read The Lorax? First published in 1971, Dr Seuss captured for kids the tale of man’s selfish and greedy destruction of the planet in favour of economic ‘biggering’. Confronted by the Lorax, who ‘speaks for the trees’ (well, someone’s got to), the Once-ler refuses to tone down the environmental damage he is doing, as he demolishes acres and acres of glorious Truffula trees in order to produce a completely pointless ‘Thneed.’ If you don’t remember the book, you may have seen the movie. Not my favourite adaptation, to be honest, but undoubtedly it captures a new, and potentially larger audience than the Seuss original.

Well, the Lorax and Mother Nature appear to have connived, and made another bid to be heard. As industry shuts down in a domino effect around the globe, the coronavirus lockdown is having a dramatic effect on deadly air pollution from Wuhan to Mumbai and New York to Rome. Cities that have long held records for some of the worst air pollution in the world can suddenly see the sky. ‘It is a silver lining in terms of this awful crisis that we can step outside and breathe,’ says one observer in Delhi.

As planes come down to rest, driving is restricted and factories have pressed the pause button, jaundiced skies around the world are clearing. Fish, cormorants, crabs and plant life are now visible in Venice’s clear blue canals. Horizons are no longer as murky as they were six months ago.

Pollution levels, the papers tell me, have dropped by more than 50% in many parts of Europe since so many countries have shut down for fear of an untrammelled virus that has currently killed around 70,000. But do we worry about the 7 million people around the world who die annually from diseases related to poor air quality? And these same vulnerable people are most likely to die from Covid-19. Ironic isn’t it?

What will it take to make us sit up and listen? Modern medicine – with its antibiotics, flu jabs and vaccines – has done much towards saving lives, and slowing down natural selection to a dull roar. The Grim Reaper is no longer as staggeringly destructive in maternity wards as he once was – at least in many countries, that’s the case. Like the Onceler’s business, our human population is continuously biggering and biggering and biggering. On a small blue planet that has been struggling for decades to contain us, what can be done to reduce our chronic impact on this beautiful world?

So has Mother Nature sent us a virus to make us sit up and see what can happen if we are prepared to change the world order? Less pollution., less consumption, less waste… less people? War and disease, plagues and pestilence have slowed us down in the past, made us pause to reconsider the impact we have. But how much do we really learn? How many of us are prepared to take advice from older generations who have learned the hard way? How much are we prepared to alter and adapt the way we live to ensure a future for our children and our grandchildren? How does economic biggering really help us survive as a species? Or are we destined to create a smouldering, smoggy ball out of our beautiful, vulnerable blue planet?

  • with thanks to Google images – and Dr Seuss! – for the Lorax pic.
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