SNEEZING, HACKING sweating like a TV evangelist, hurtin’ like a country song.
“I think I’m dying,” I told her. “I’ve got Wuhan coronavirus.”
I smiled wanly, raised my palm toward her. “You don’t want to come near me.”
She nodded vigorously: “You got that right.”
It was nice to be taken seriously this time. Frequent readers will recognize that such is not always the case when I’m perishing from a global pandemic.
Back in 2014, when I came perilously close to succumbing to Ebola, or at least would have had it actually travelled from Africa to Canada, all she gave me was an eye roll.
Ditto for the swine flu outbreak of 2009, when the long, squirming-with-anxiety lines outside the UVic vaccination clinic resembled those leading to the porta potties at Beer Fest. Fear of transmission ran so high that a Victoria transit passenger was booted off a bus for coughing, and churchgoers were urged not to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer. Yet my malady was dismissed as “just a cold,” as though anything so mundane could have laid me so low.
It was the same story in 2005 when the avian flu flew me to the brink of the great beyond, in 2004 when West Nile virus almost sent me south, and in 2003 when mad cow disease stampeded us into a frenzy. “You’re not dying,” she said, “you’re just moooody.” (Sometimes she cracks herself up.)
Then there was the SARS outbreak, also in 2003, when I felt fine but she suffered a violent coughing fit, forcing me to lock her out of the house.
“Let me in,” she shouted through the letter slot. “I swallowed a mosquito.”
“Go away or I’ll shoot you like the neighbours,” I replied. One can’t be too prudent.
SARS never did prove to be as deadly as we feared it would be, not in Canada, anyway. It killed 44 people in this country, which was sad, but still just one-tenth as many as died from 2009’s H1N1 outbreak.
By comparison, 8,511 of us died from seasonal flu and pneumonia in 2018, but we didn’t get as worked up about that. Nobody brought in the Rolling Stones for a benefit concert for Toronto like they did after the SARS scare chased away all the tourists.
Blame human nature. It’s the over-the-horizon dangers that grab our attention, whereas those that are already here are ignored. Personally, I’ll overreact to any sexy menace-du-jour to come down the pike. Tsunamis, killer bees, terrorism — my propensity to panic is in inverse proportion to any actual threat.
When the Y2K bug failed to deliver the millennium meltdown, I was stuck with a backyard bunker and a Visa bill for $20,000 worth of Spam, ammunition and liquor.
After 9/11, I assumed that everywhere from the Sooke Potholes to Blockbuster Video was atop Osama bin Laden’s to-do list, so cowered under the bed. (In my defence, I was not alone: Remember that during the 2001 anthrax flap a suspicious envelope emptied the premier’s office, another closed a building at CFB Esquimalt and an unidentified white powder kept the Queen of Nanaimo tied up at Salt Spring Island. For real.)
This is not to discount the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in China, to make light of the toll it has taken, or to do anything but applaud the international efforts to contain it. It is because of similar efforts that we have remained relatively unscathed in the past. And it frightens us that one of these times we could lose the roll of the dice.
No, it just seems ironic that we always leap to hyper-vigilance when a threat is either distant or improbable, yet can’t be moved off the couch when the house is already on fire. We won’t let our kids walk to school for fear of some nonexistent bogeyman, yet just shrug when they’re so out of shape that they can’t run from first base to third without taking a knee en route.
We eat, drink and lousy-lifestyle ourselves into heart disease and cancer, our real killers. We text and drive. We spray our gardens with insecticide, then wonder why we haven’t seen a bluebird for 20 years.
So, by all means, let’s brace for the next global pandemic, again.
Wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow and for heaven’s sake stay home from school or work if you’re sick.
It might save us from spreading what’s already here.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.