By Loraine Bito, illustrations by Gert-Jan van den Bemd for Fantasize
World Health Organization (WHO) declared corona-virus a pandemic
That morning I woke up with a slight headache which usually preceded my personal seasonal flu period. In an attempt to fight it off I hurried to the grocery store to buy some orange juice. This vitamin C shot had oftentimes helped me circumvent the worst symptoms which would confine me to my bed for a couple of days. As I had planned to meet a recruiter on Friday the 13th to talk about possible new assignments to start making a name for myself as an independent contractor I was determined to have the meeting. All my hope flew out the window when the muscle ache set in the next morning. At the same time the Dutch Government was slowly taking precautions against the pandemic caused by the corona-virus later to be rechristened COVID-19.
I cancelled my appointment with the recruiter and the relief that permeated through the electronic response to take my time to recuperate made me aware of the fact that the corona-virus was swiftly gaining footing in the Netherlands. That weekend the full flu-experience took a hold of me. My whole body was hurting and my nasal passages were clogged up which made Breathing in and out more difficult than portrayed by Kate Bush in her video.
Meanwhile schools, stores, restaurants, bars, fitness clubs were closing up and social life was coming to a screeching halt.
An intelligently applied lockdown
For the first time a Dutch prime minister used a multi-channel approach to address the people which underscored the growing panic surrounding the impending corona-crisis. He confined everybody to their homes so the health care sector would be able to tend to the anticipated onslaught of corona patients. The term social distancing was added to the street vocabulary and a new goal for the country was introduced: Group Immunity. This immediately raised a lot of questions under the population. They ranged from ‘What is group immunity?’ to ‘How could this be achieved if we had to keep 1.5 meter distance between each other’? Was this how it had been like for Alice listening to the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
The list of the occupations that were allowed to go outside to keep things going created a new appreciation for these professions. Nurses, supermarket employees, garbage men, postmen, delivery services, police men and teachers finally got their long overdue recognition after all the cut backs and lay-offs they endured in the past. The rest of the work population was sent to their room. Confined between the four walls of the home we were forced to take a good look at the Man in the Mirror as the late Michael Jackson asked us to do so long ago.
The first order of business was to take care of the bare necessities as the bear Baloo did in the Disney animation of Mowgli. I went to the supermarket with my grocery list with some extra comfort food items added to it and was totally taken aback of the almost empty shelves that greeted me walking into the store. It was like stepping into the Twilight Zone. Only the intro music was replaced by the warning coming from the loud speakers to follow the lines on the floor and to mind the corona measures. Passing the refrigerator for vegetables I saw a man wearing gloves and a medical mask walking behind a shopping cart furiously gesturing to the other shoppers to keep their distance.
I continued one the strangest shopping experiences of my life and made my way to the meat section. From an email of one of my loyalty programs I learned that I would get a personal discount on my purchase of chicken wings. As fast food chains, in this case KFC, have been closed by the authorities this deal may satisfy my cravings. I went right to the young woman who was restocking the empty cooling of the meat department to ask, keeping the appropriate distance, if the chicken wings had been delivered. She didn’t know but she would go to the storage facilities behind the store to check. When she started to walk away a young man politely asked if she could also check something out for him. Waiting on her return we started talking with each other. He told me that now that he was working from home, he finally had the time to cook. He was planning to prepare hachee. It was an unwelcome surprise to discover that people had reverted to their hoarding instincts and turned a simple choir like grocery shopping into a scavenger hunt.
We were bonding under these strange circumstances and I really regretted parting ways in search of the ingredients for my own supper. I thought to myself: ‘If this was anything like Serendipity our paths would cross again seven years from now.’
Going with the (corona) flow
After the Prime Minister had repeatedly reassured the public that the country had enough food supplies to sustain everyone, ably assisted by a sign language interpreter now famous for her iconic signing of “hoarding” strongly reminiscent of the chipmunks Chip & Dale, people calmed down and the toilet paper among other things was again readily available in stores. I had to admit the corona measures had some advantages. The shopping carts were being cleaned and set before the shopper when entering the store. People did not hover above one another or reach alongside to grab items from the shelves. Everyone was waiting respectfully in line and gave each other room to get their groceries.
The more cordial attitude of the public meant I was able to stock-up on comfort food at my leisure. It was quite intoxicating to be able to scarf down chocolate, ice cream and other snacks while simultaneously enjoying the creature comforts of my own home. As a result, I gained quite a few of the so-called Lockdown kilograms, much like what the Witch who built the gingerbread house in Hansel & Gretel had in mind for lost children who were unlucky enough to stumble on her home. To prevent going through life with a rubenesque figure I started following yoga classes on YouTube instead of watching the disheartening media coverage of the spreading of the virus. While slowly toning up my body, my mind also tuned up and started to demand brain food. On-line seminars with Deepak Chopra and reading books like Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari) and Mythos (Stephen Fry) jump started my own creativity. Finally, I had the peace and quiet to sit and think not unlike Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) or better yet Winnie the Pooh.
I appreciated the fact that I had been blessed with the fact that my residence was a real sanctuary, because for a lot of people their home didn’t offer them a safe haven. Case in point was an incident with a female teacher who was assaulted at home by her partner while teaching an undergraduate class on-line. People who were suffering silently behind closed doors might have had much in common with the person in the painting The Scream during the lockdown. Or to think of it maybe their whole life?
The National Institute for Public Health and Environment (better known as RIVM, the Dutch equivalent of the CDC) attempts to get a grip on the spread of the corona-virus was like watching a segment of the Muppet Show in which Dr. Bunsen Honeydew conducted experiments on his unfortunate assistant Beaker. First it was decided to keep testing to a minimum. In their opinion the test results could not be relied on to detect the infection in the begin stages of the disease and the test kits were in short supply.
Not much later the strategy was to test as much as possible to be able to determine the point of origin and contain further spreading through quarantine. There had been a large stock of kits available in various hospitals to do just that but they hadn’t bothered to take inventory.
The elderly, were supposed to be the only ones who faced certain death when contracting the virus. RIVM advised their families to refrain from visiting them for their own protection. The revelation that everyone could be infected and the ones to succumb to the virus were those who were overweight or already had an underlying medical condition left everybody in abject disbelief. People had passed away at retirement homes without their loved ones at their side as a result of this particular misguided restriction.
From that moment on it seemed the nation found it Harder to breathe as Maroon 5 so eloquently put into words. Discussions about wearing non-medical masks in public areas to stop the spread of the virus ensued. The medical masks were reserved for the health care sector and the supply was quickly depleting. According to the RIVM the non-medical masks would not prevent infection. Despite of their ineffectiveness some municipalities made the wearing of non-medical mask in public areas mandatory. Meanwhile more and more demonstrations against the corona restrictions were held as these limitations felt like a knee pressing on the neck of Dutch citizenry.
Voices of critics who had the audacity not to fall in with the song and dance given by the official channels regarding these inconsistencies were silenced. The ‘culprits’ were branded as supports of conspiracy theories and banished from social media. People who didn’t believe the hype were labeled Public Enemies.
As I was one of those people who liked to rebel within given parameters, I had bought some cotton cloth with dinosaur print. The sewing pattern for the non-medical mask would be made available on the governmental sites, which I watched closely so I could download it immediately. My non-medical mask would look as non-threatening as possible. I did not want to contribute to the ominous atmosphere wearing a mask could create like Hannibal Lecter’s in The Silence Of The Lambs. Now if I could only find the time to make one.
It’s a Kind of Magic
In the political arena the Clash of the Titans was being reenacted in the health care sector. Behind the scenes medical masks, ventilators and test kits were becoming spoils of war. This led to one shocking public casualty. The minister coordinating the efforts to contain the spreading of the virus collapsed during a grueling debate in the House of Representatives. Through social media the minister thanked everyone for their concern and reassured the citizens that he was simply fatigued. All he needed was a good night’s rest. The next day he surprised friend and foe alike by resigning his post reasoning that the country deserved a fit representative who could give his all during the crisis the country was facing.
His shoes turned out too big to fill. Maybe that was why his replacement wore shoes from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s wardrobe. It clearly had not been a walk in the park. After testing the medical masks delivered by China were found wanting. Luckily the distribution had been put on hold awaiting the test results. The development and implementation of the corona app met with open distrust as it entailed a flagrant disregard for privacy. The discovery that the corona app contained a data leak in the first development stages did not help the situation. Meanwhile a temporary corona law had been drafted that would give the police the authority to come into people’s homes to check if the corona measures were being uphold. Under tremendous pressure the new corona coordinator had to remove this clause to be able to submit the law in the House of Representatives on July 13th 2020.
There must had been moments that he wished he was able to click the heels of his shoes three times and go home as Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz.
Adjusting to the new normal
The new normal meant getting accustomed in following daily routines while adhering to the ordained social distance. The annual maintenance of the heating in my home was coming up. I called the number on the letter announcing the visit, to check the time the mechanic had planned me in. The young lady on the phone sounded a little dejected until she understood that I only wanted to know what time the visit was scheduled. I discovered that most people had cancelled due to fear of contracting the virus. Making conversation while he was working the mechanic told me he encountered similar problems due to the corona measures. His allergies were acting up which had led to clients denying him admittance to their home. I observed the obligated social distance but I soon realized I should have kept more distance when he knelt to check the boiler and treated me to the unenviable sight of his partly uncovered behind. Everything was going smoothly until he sneezed and didn’t use the inside of his elbow. My mind was working overtime: ‘Could this be where the warning of olden days regarding letting people into the house originated from? Is it possible that Death had been invited in as told in the tale of Edgar Allan Poe The Masque of the Red Death? Well that would be a problem for another (fourteen) day(s) I thought to myself.”
My chocolate frenzy during the lockdown had resulted in a pimple emergency which necessitated a run to the pharmacy. At the entrance I was stopped by the ‘hostess’ who informed me that the maximum number of clients had been reached. If I had ordered through the website I could have entered to retrieve my acne cream from one of the medical lockers. This bemused me because I would be occupying the same area in which the maximum number of clients had been reached. While I was pondering this conundrum, an elderly lady came up to the hostess and to my utter amazement was admitted as she only needed to dispose unused medicine. When she came outside, clearly distraught, the hostess hurried out and wrapped her arms around her. After the consoling embrace the elderly woman stepped on her bicycle and slowly rode away. The people waiting outside were told by the hostess that the elderly woman had recently lost her spouse. Throwing away the medications of her late husband had shaken her to the core. She could not turn to her family as they were forced to distance themselves for her own protection. The people in line fell silent and were pondering over the ramifications of the new normal.
Never the end…
The world economy had suffered greatly during the corona crisis. Due to the closing of stores, restaurants, movie theatres etc. companies were unable to pay wages despite of government funding which resulted in massive lay-offs. People accrued enormous debts. Crime and suicide rates had risen to an all-time high. This financial equivalent of Ragnarok had been a regular recurrence in the history of humankind. The Great Depression, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the Banking Crises had left the world in similar dire straits. As proclaimed by the Young Disciples Apparently Nothin’ had been learned from these historical economic downfalls. Every reiteration of the Brave New World seemed to have been built on the same faulty foundation and doomed to fail from the start.
At the moment of writing the vaccine is seen as the new pot of gold on the end of the rainbow. Countries are individually developing and testing their concoctions to be the first to market the ultimate solution which the world will be desperate to buy.
Meanwhile China’s trade partners are encouraging their denizens to move their organizations and/or production lines to other countries. Previously the lack of transparency which is China’s trademark had been offset by the cheap labor the country provided. As should have been expected China had hidden the gravity of the Outbreak in their capital cities which meant that the rest of the world was unable to take precautions at an early stage.
Except for Taiwan whose distrust of China prompted them to activate the protocols they had put in place after their experiences with the SARS-epidemic in 2003. Taiwan’s warnings were not heeded by the WHO as China had forbidden to acknowledge Taiwan as an independent country. A tragic example of the Emperor Wearing No Clothes.
The world still reeling from the impact of COVID-19 was, due to China’s continued secrecy, not able to retrace the virus origin which had crippled any attempt to counteract the virus.
Maybe that in the future historians will discover the truth about its inception and conclude in hindsight with 2020 vision what should have been the appropriate course of action. Or maybe all this information is being stored in the classified section of area 51 as we speak. To quote agent Mulder: ‘The truth is out there.’
An end always heralds a new begin. Is it possible that this time around the world will be rebuild on a new foundation? Will humanity finally realize that the question is: Are we still going to wait for the One to save us from The Matrix that we have built for ourselves or do we decide to take the red pill and create a better and brighter future in unison?
This is truly a Call To Action.
About the autor:
As a member of the editorial office Loraine Bito (1969) writes columns and reviews for the website Fantasize.nl. In the role of IT Business Consultant, she uses her story telling skills to facilitate stakeholders during system implementation projects at (non-)profit organizations situated in The Netherlands.
About the illustrator:
Gert-Jan van den Bemd (Breda, The Netherlands, 1964) is a writer, visual artist and science journalist. He published two novels, and numerous poems and short stories in literary magazines and anthologies. His art work was shown in the Netherlands, Belgium, Morocco, Hungary, Lithuania, South Africa, and the USA.
© 2020-2022 Loraine Bito, Gert-Jan van den Bemd & Fantasize
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