Tag Archives: pandemic

Decontaminate, Natasya Currie

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

There are bodies on the sidewalk. Quinn’s eyes dart to them briefly. The closest of them, a man dressed in a tailored black suit, lies half-curled in the foetal position near the bus-stop. Another woman has collapsed two metres away from him, a half-eaten muffin fallen from her outstretched hand. A speckled finch cocks its head and hops closer, heedless of the wide berth given to the bodies by the rest of the early-morning crowd.

They’re not the only ones. There are other bodies: each one an unmoving stone in the flow of commuters. Quinn counts one, two, a trio over there, another in front of the alley, before she catches herself and tears her gaze away. The light ahead turns green and the bus rolls forward, nudging Quinn further into her seat. The bodies soon disappear, though her awareness of them lingers.

The bus trip takes twenty minutes. Quinn spends eleven of those fiddling with the cord of her earphones and the rest nervously cataloguing the other passengers. There’s a man in a black suit to her left across the aisle and two women spaced carefully at the front. They’re wearing masks, like Quinn, but above the blue fabric their eyes are half-lidded and weary. Quinn smooths unsteady fingers down the sides of her nose bridge, pushing the mask wire flush against her skin. They don’t look sick… but that doesn’t mean they’re not. The thought that one of them could be a carrier spikes anxiety into her stomach.

Through the window, Quinn spots the corner café she works at: Morning Brew. She stands as the bus draws closer, presses the buzzer, and waits as the bus driver pulls to the side of the road. When she pulls her hand away from the pole, the icy imprint of the metal stays like a brand on her palm. Quinn holds it stiffly at her side as she walks to her work.

Another dead body is slumped two feet from the entrance. It’s a girl, maybe the same age as Quinn herself. She’s wearing bright yellow heels, but the shoes are scuffed and almost falling off her feet, meaning she was dragged here—off the main footpath, perhaps, or out of the road. Quinn stares at the body for a long time, her keys clenched in her fist. Briefly, and selfishly, she wishes the girl had the forethought to die somewhere else. But she hadn’t, and neither had the person who’d moved her, and now it is Quinn’s problem.

She can’t move the body—can’t touch it—but the council truck won’t be by for hours and won’t it scare away customers? In the end, she leaves it there, not knowing what else she can do.

Quinn’s been working the opening shift for months. Now, the familiar mantra runs through her head like a printer churning kitchen dockets. Unlock the door, turn on the lights, drop your bag behind the counter and grab an apron. Keeping track of the places she touches is just another running list: key, door, light switch, cupboard handle. Her co-workers on the closing shift should have disinfected everything already but Quinn can’t trust that alone. She’ll go over everything again before the café opens. But first – as she thinks about the dead girl on the café’s doorstep – her hands.

There’s sanitiser tucked beneath the counter. Her hands are still raw from this morning, when she scrubbed her hands free of bacteria after getting on the bus. Quinn smooths the cold gel over her palms, along the backs, in the gaps between fingers and on the half-moons of her fingertips. The cracks in her dry, roughened skin reveal themselves with stinging complaint but the ache, too, is routine. She dries her hands with a flick of her wrists and moves on to the rest of the café.

For a half-hour, she’s alone. Then the bell above the door rattles when she’s in the middle of fitting the filters into the coffee machine and Quinn glances up. It’s the new hire, she realises. He’d replaced Alyssa, she remembers, after the poor girl was found keeled over in the backroom. The café had been closed for a week for de-contamination. The new guy’s name was… Kenny? Kyle? Then the young man gets close enough for Quinn to glance at his name tag. ‘Hey, Kevin,’ she manages, hiding her relief.

‘Hi! You’re Quinn, right? I can’t believe this is our first shift together!’ exclaims the other guy. He’s grinning at her as he sticks out his hand. For a heartbeat, Quinn moves to shake it – and then the realisation clicks in and she steps back instead.

‘Woah,’ she says. ‘Did you sanitise yet?’

‘Oh.’ Kevin pulls his hand away from Quinn and covers his mouth as he laughs. He’s touching his face, Quinn thinks, dismayed. ‘Whoopsie-daisy! Sorry, I’m just, like, still getting used to it all. Did you see that girl outside? I totally almost went to ask if she was okay before I realised, she was, like, dead. You know?’ He laughs, but it comes out nervous and brittle.

Quinn can sympathise, even as her heart trembles at Kevin’s near miss. That instinctual empathy – the desire to help – had almost been their downfall when the sickness had first emerged, before they’d learned to avert their eyes and keep their distance instead. A government ad campaign had been reinforcing that lesson for weeks now: SAVE OUR BUSINESSES, NOT THE BODIES! The economy, after all, was what would save them.

No one said how exactly, but Quinn has been told it enough times to know it’s true. It’s why she’s here, in the café, setting up while there’s a dead girl outside the doors and more bodies in the street than she can count. And, speaking of the economy… Quinn sighs and beckons for Kevin to follow her behind the counter where they keep the sanitiser and PPE. ‘Come on,’ she says, and reaches for a pair of gloves. ‘We have to move it.’

‘Move what?’ asks Kevin, and then he pulls a face. ‘The girl? Ew, Quinn. Can’t we just wait for the council truck?’

‘That could take hours,’ she counters. ‘The café opens in twenty minutes.’ And we’ll both get fired if we don’t, she thinks.

Kevin huffs – but Quinn is right, and they both know it. After a moment’s hesitation, he sanitises his hands and reaches for a face shield. Once they’re both covered head to toe in multiple layers of protective equipment, Quinn leads the way to the door. Outside, a few people do double-takes and then veer in a wide circle to keep clear of them both. Quinn senses Kevin’s grimace even through the mask.

The dead girl has listed slightly to the side since Quinn saw her, her blue eyes open but sightless. Quinn swallows against the sudden lump in her throat and averts her gaze. ‘You take her ankles,’ she suggests. ‘I’ll grab her wrists.’

‘And take her where?’ whines Kevin, and Quinn feels a flash of irritation. Does he think she wants to move the body? ‘The dumpster?’

Quinn shakes her head. ‘There’s a collection point down the street. We’ll take her there.’
Despite her brave face, Quinn fights a physical wave of revulsion as they manoeuvre the body flat onto the ground and then she wraps her fingers around the girl’s slim wrists. Even through her plastic gloves, Quinn can feel her ice-cold skin and imagines the sickness slowly transferring through their touch. The thought is almost enough to make her panic.

She fights the feeling as they struggle down the street, the body swinging stiffly between them. The streets are emptier now, but the few pedestrians hold their hands over their masks and hurry onwards when they see Quinn and Kevin with the body between them. No one wants to be near the infected.

The collection point is marked by the spray-painted warning signs on the surrounding ground and the four-post pavilion. The cover is supposed to protect the bodies from the elements, which Quinn supposes she appreciates. The bodies start to stink if they’re left out for more than a few days already; she can’t imagine the stench if they were left out to be roasted by the sun or bloated by the rain. Today, fortunately, the collection point is almost empty. There’s only an old man settled at the centre and a young girl, a child, placed carefully right on the edge. Quinn’s grateful for it; she doesn’t know how her nerves would have held up if she’d had to add to a pile. Even the thought of it makes her skin crawl.

With a grunt, Kevin throws the girl’s ankles down. Her battered yellow heels thud lifelessly against the pavement. Quinn winces and lowers the upper half of her body with slightly more care. Then she steps back and realises they’re too close to the edge. She checks her watch, though the face of it is dim and hard to read through her plastic scrubs. It’s almost time to open. Quinn bites her lip, deliberating quickly. She doesn’t want to be left alone with the bodies, but if the café doesn’t open on time… Well, then she’ll really be dead.

‘Go back to the café,’ she instructs Kevin eventually, who visibly sags with relief. ‘I’ll follow. And don’t touch anything!’

Kevin acknowledges her with a brief salute and then turns back. She watches him for a moment, wishing he’d offered to stay. Then, resigned to her task, she turns back to the body and grabs her ankles this time. Her blue eyes are still, awfully, open. Quinn tucks her chin into her shoulder and drags her closer to the centre, away from where an unsuspecting pedestrian could stumble into her radius of infection.

Invariably, though, after she settles her, Quinn’s gaze drifts back to the dead girl’s face. Dragged like this, the girl’s blonde hair—once neatly curled—has become filthy and matted. Her mascara’s smudged, too, in black streaks beneath her eyes. And Quinn knows it’s stupid but until the sickness, she’d thought all dead bodies were supposed to look peaceful.

Quinn knows better now. Underneath the dirt, and the black smears, and the emptiness behind her eyes… she looks scared, just like the rest of them. Hell, Quinn knows that fear intimately. She had been terrified when the reports had first flooded in: people dropping dead on the streets, stiff bodies left to rot on sidewalks. She’d thought the world as they knew it was ending. Two weeks later, though, it’s still business as usual, minus the corpses on her daily commute.

But she’s adjusting to those, too. Like everyone else is.

She turns and goes back to the café. True to her instructions, Kevin’s finished opening—though fortunately, with Quinn still in her PPE, there’s no customers inside to be scared off yet. She slips inside and goes straight to the backroom to strip it off: her gloves, mask, face, shield and scrubs. Kevin’s is already neatly bundled into a sealed plastic bag, ready to be burned. When Quinn finishes up and re-enters the serving area, she sees Kevin mopping her contaminated footsteps off the floor. His wrists are still pink: he must have scrubbed his hands raw after he’d returned to the café, terrified that the sickness would transfer.

Quinn sanitises her hands again and ties on a new mask. She’s disinfecting the countertops—again—when the doorbell jingles. The cheerful noise is jarring after the stress of the morning, and Quinn nearly jumps. She takes a deep breath to collect herself, ignoring the sweat beading on her forehead, and then glances up from the counter. Kevin’s already pulled away to greet the trio of customers, his brown man-bun wobbling precariously atop his head. It’s selfish, Quinn knows, but she stays behind the counter instead of joining him. Her earlier exertion has left her tired and flushed, so she’s not in the mood to put on a customer-service smile.

Once the customers are seated and their orders taken, Kevin saunters over so that Quinn can punch it into the register and get started on their drinks: a mocha and two lattes for the three women. She pivots to grab three cups from the cupboards, but a wave of dizziness knocks her off-balance. She halts, reeling from the sudden light-headedness.

Kevin, watching from the other side of the counter, notices immediately. ‘Are you alright?’ he asks.

Quinn hates that she knows exactly what he’s thinking, hates that she’s thinking it too. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she snaps, harsher than she meant to. ‘I’m fine. Just tired from moving the-’ She hesitates, glancing at the three customers. They’re not paying attention, but she lowers her voice nonetheless. ‘The body.’

‘Yeah, it was pretty heavy.’ Satisfied, Kevin turns his attention to the machine again. ‘You’ll make ‘em, right?’

Quinn flicks an irritated glance in his direction. Kevin would have been taught how to make all the different drinks on his first shift, so it’s not like he needs her help. But Quinn’s the senior employee: she should set the example. ‘Fine, but you can plate their pastries.’

Once he’s gone, Quinn refocuses on her task. By now, the process of each drink is routine and almost mindless. She’s pouring the steamed milk into the second latte when another wave of dizziness hits her, stronger than the first, and the metal jug slips from her hand. It falls to the floor with a loud crash and hot milk arcs over the tiles.

Quinn barely sees it. Darkness swims at the edge of her vision and her balance is gone—she stumbles, catching herself against the edge of a counter. She hears Kevin call her name, panicked, but it’s distant, muffled—like he’s in another room. A third wave of dizziness slams into her and she falls to the floor.

When Quinn manages to lift her head, she sees Kevin and the three customers staring down at her, shocked. They must have run to see the source of the commotion.
But they’ve kept a careful distance from her. A metre or two; Quinn knows, instantly, that they won’t help her. They can’t. Suddenly, bizarrely, she has the urge to laugh.

Her last thought, before the darkness closes in, is that the café will need to be decontaminated.

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Touched, Kimberley Carter

Photo by Muillu on Unsplash

When was the last time you dreamed in any colour other than gold? You wish there was a dial or perhaps a valve that you could use to drain the world of that particular metallic hue. Maybe then, the world would return to the way it was before.

You find the memories from the time before especially difficult to keep straight. Memories are strange. They are never straight forward. They are like quantum particles that when observed, change direction. One afternoon, after a bland and tasteless lunch, you sit your children down in the dining room and do your best to explain to them the beginning and the before. You fumble a lot, lose your place and ramble. Your voice is muffled through your mask and your hands are sweaty beneath your gloves. You find there is no real place to start, no way to explain these things clearly to children who only know the after. Somehow, this seems important though. These are things they can only experience if you tell them.

You try and begin with a simpler time. You describe in vivid detail crowded concert halls where your head gets jammed in a rockers damp, un-pruned armpit. You tell them about hugging friends in greeting and kissing strangers, and travelling. Travelling! To them, it’s a foreign concept. Communities are now so small. They are closed off, locked and barred. The only good stranger now is a familiar one. The children make faces at you. They are still young.

*

Somewhere along the way, you tell them about a girl. You think her name was Amelia. Or maybe it was Emma. It is hard to know. You only met her once. You were a pharmacy assistant at the time. Young, fresh and roped into doing the job that no one wanted. You don’t remember the house being anything special. The weeds were stretching tall in their stolen beds and the grass was high as a wheat field. So high it almost obscured the hastily erected sign out front. It read, ‘Caution: Quarantine Zone. PPE must be worn at all times.’ Already, even then, that sign was familiar.

You knocked on the door and when there was no response, you knocked again. You must not be knocking loud enough, you thought. You call out instead.

‘I’m from the pharmacy,’ you say, ‘I’m delivering your medication.’

You don’t forget what she looks like when she opens the door. You describe her to your children as hunched and small. Her pyjamas are old and filthy. Her hair is matted and oily, she is like an underfed lion hiding in the wheat field waiting to pounce. Her eye bags are like new moons, carving circles into her cheekbones. Your children ask what was wrong with her. ‘This is what loneliness looks like,’ you answer.

She slides the cash under the fly-screen and tells you to keep the change. You think you see her in your newsfeed, months later. Or maybe you didn’t.

*

Your children ask you ‘What is cash?’. You take them to a dusty unused corner of the house and pull out an old box hidden among the shelves. Inside, carefully filed, named and catalogued, are notes and coins. You make them sanitise before and after touching them. After all, cash is now a dirty collectable.

You are glad they are showing interest. You are glad they are asking questions. Questions are good. Questions are better than blank stares and obvious fidgets. You decide to tell them how it started. That the first spark was a man in the media; a shaky video that most people discounted as fake. But a fake virus does not multiply the way this one did.

You are losing their interest. You can see it but you cannot stop. Some stories need to be told simply for the sanity of the speaker. This is what you tell them, you say: Imagine your senses being flooded every hour, every day with news of this new virus. Look at all the pictures of brightly coloured microorganisms spiked like maces. Listen to the ever-growing list of people posting videos about how they feel, what they’ve been through. Read what the government has to say. That it’s contained. That it’s non-threatening. That it’s a naturally caused mutation of a pre-existing virus strand. No one believes it, not even you. How could you? The statistics were bleak. You thought perhaps you were seeing the end. After all, what kind of virus could possible exist that turned people into gold?

The different stages of the virus became predicable once you got used to it. And you did get used to it. Humanity adapts surprisingly quickly to world changing events. You have started sympathising with world war two survivors, you don’t remember when. You picture yourself on par with them, sitting down in the rubble of a train station, listening to the bombs above and saying to one another, ‘How was your day today? Anything exciting happen?’

Your children chime in. They say ‘We know! We know!’ in feigned boredom. Of course they know. There are signs everywhere. In every classroom, in the libraries, in the halls. There’s even a magnet on your fridge written in large red letters ‘Know the symptoms of the Midas Touch. Protect yourself and others.’ Your children may know this but knowing is different to understanding.

You explain anyway. You have to now. You cannot stop. You are winding up the toy, racing towards the punch line. Why is this so hard? The first stage of the virus is the slight yellowy shimmer in the whites of the eyes. Next, the Touched person’s veins change colour, from a deep blue to a rich gold. The worst symptoms, you say, are the invisible ones. The loss of taste, and the stiff limbs that feel like running through water. It’s like the gold has been heated in a furnace than poured into your body shaped mould and left to cool.

You tell them about the great debates over where it came from, whether it was purely spread by touch, about how long it could survive on surfaces and whether the virus was small enough to become airborne. The last stage of course is the golden hue the skin takes. That’s what people will remember, not that most died from their hearts giving in or their lungs collapsing. You were too young to remember SARS or measles. You hope that your children will not remember the Touch but you know you are wrong.

You are afraid you have bored the children. They will no longer sit still. They see the sun glinting through the window and beg for the chance to play. It is already getting late. You are running out of time. You look into their eyes and you find yourself unable to say no. You haven’t told it yet, the most important part. You convince yourself it can wait till tomorrow. You retreat into the half-light of your office. Your mind is full of the things not said.

There is one image that sticks most clearly in your head. This, you do not share with your children. This, you file away like a postcard and every now and then it comes knocking on your skull.

*

You remember seeing an elderly couple on a park bench, their skin stiff and covered with a golden sheen. They were the first Touched you saw in person. Over the years, you have questioned and wondered and imagined how they died. Who were they? How did they get there? What was the last thoughts running through their gold-riddled minds? You remember it like this:

They are two statues; mannequins dressed in their nicest clothes. The woman is wearing a loose-fitting dress covered in sunflowers. The man is dressed in some stretchy slacks and a blue checkered shirt. In the small space between them their hands are clasped together. They are smiling into each other’s eyes. Those facts never change.

You think maybe one night, the woman notices the dull distant look in her husband’s eyes. Maybe she sees the golden veins creeping up his throat and says to him, ‘let’s go for a walk’. Then she helps him dress. She grabs his cane, his hat and his glasses. She leaves the masks and gloves at home. When she opens the door, she helps him through the threshold. And when he stumbles on the way up the hill, she supports his arm in hers and tells him ‘Your cane! Use your cane!’. They make it to the park that’s little more than a grassy hill. She sits him down to wait for the sunrise. Or is it sunset? No, you are sure it must be sunrise. There is nothing more fitting. The mist coils around their shoes and the dew on the bench seeps through their clothes. She talks to him about anything and everything and always she holds his hand. You imagine the comfort that would have bought the old man. The comfort of physical touch that fades so quickly from memory. The comfort of knowing that someone was there with you, and they weren’t going to let go. You miss the feeling; it nags at you like an ache in your chest or a pressure behind your eyes.

The night then starts to lighten. The mist seems to raise from the ground, briefly bringing the world to life in a glow of pure white. Then the sun starts peeking through. You’ve always thought that sunrise is best; more special. You hope they were watching the sunrise. You hope they managed to see it. You can picture them, sitting on that little bench holding hands as they are bathed in the warmth of a new day.

Did she look into his eyes as he died? Did she cry tears speckled with golden flakes that glittered in the dawn? Did she simply decide not to let go? Did she decide to hold his hand as it stiffened, and wait? Would it have been a relief when her own skin hardened and took on that golden hue; when she lost the ability to move and her thoughts dulled and slowed. Whether it was her heart or her lungs that gave first doesn’t matter to you. Neither does it matter if it was the man or the woman who died first, or the sunrise or the sunset that they watched. The truth lives in their smiles as they stare into each other’s eyes and the clasp of their hands on the bench between them.

You secretly hope no one touched them, that they were given dignity. You hope no one took their clothes or broke their arms off. You wanted them to sit together on that bench overlooking the little grassy park, a frozen moment in time. A tribute. They faced the Touch together and for that they are immortalised, if only in your mind.

The postcard image would come knocking often, especially in the first few months of the pandemic and always while you were at work. Even through the protective barriers, the gloves and the masks, you still saw something of the world. You remember a little girl, maybe around eight. She was wearing tiny pink gloves and a mask with flowers on it. They were a matching set. You saw her wandering the store, not touching a thing. Instead, she amused herself by jumping on the X’s. Every two metres, a bright blue X has been ironed onto the floor. Later, a more permanent solution would replace them. The little girl in pink was too small to jump from one X to the next, so she jumped and shuffled, jumped and shuffled. It occurred to you as you watched her, that this was her normal. Jumping on the X’s will be a part of childhood. Already children were making songs and games to play together using the X’s, and their masks, and the sanitiser their parents drenched them with.

*

Outside, you can hear your children playing, they pull your mind back to the present. You will not allow them to go further than the yard. The games they play are different to what you had grown up with. Their laughter settles like a heavy sadness in your bones.

You wonder at the changing world. You wonder when you last touched somebody, or saw a stranger’s face, embracing them without paranoia or fear. You wonder when it started feeling wrong to have someone standing behind you in a queue. You wonder when money started feeling dirty and why you didn’t notice it disappearing.

Your head drops to your desk. What is it you are trying to teach them? What is the point about chattering on about the past? You know the answer. But you are afraid. You do not want the past to be forgotten. The air in your office feels stuffy, your throat is tight and dry from talking and your shoulders are slumped. Tomorrow. You will tell them the rest tomorrow. You will say goodbye properly then. You will tell them how much you love them and how much you wish you could hold them.

You decide to go for a walk; a long one, even when you know you shouldn’t. You are surprised at how normal everything looks. At how the wind rustles the trees and sends the grass shivering. At how dogs are unafraid to approach you. You see a man flying a kite that is harnessed to his waist. You watch him for a long while, see how the kite bends and twists, dancing in the air and how the man pulls and strains and desperately spins to keep it airborne. As you walk, the sun begins to set. The sky turns gold. You lie down on the highest hill, ignoring the quiet complaining of your joints. You are so tired. As you lie there, you forget for a moment whether it is sunrise or sunset; whether there is a tomorrow or a yesterday. You thought you would hate the colour gold. Detest it. Despise it. But in this moment with your limbs heavy with liquid gold, the grass vainly pricking your skin and the wind stroking your hair, all you can think is that it’s warm.

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Tightrope Walking 2020, Jacqui Greig

Photo by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash

Michelle’s grandson has told her he’s too old to need band-aids. So now, leaping from stone to stone of the dragonfly shimmering creek, Samuel knows a fall means he will have to grit his teeth and wish away the hurt. It’s their favourite walk; eucalypt scented, dotted with yellow boronia and the jewel-red of mountain devil calyxes. They keep constant watch for the elusive lyre bird singing near his nest in the fern bed.

Samuel is six and for a third of his memory life has lived in a Covid world. He invites his grandmother into his cubby-house shop, with sharp reminders to wear her mask and stand on the X taped to the wooden floor. The lounge room has been taken over by his Lego Covid rescue centre with ambulance, fire-engine, and police car at the ready.

‘Granny! Granny! Come immediately to the rescue centre. You are needed urgently!’

Sunlight falling through the window washes them in its glow as she awaits instructions.
‘These are the Covid dead. You must take them to the cemetery,’he explains, pointing to a pile of Lego figurines heaped in a pick-up truck.

‘I am busy fixing up the Covid sick,’ he adds, busying himself with laying the afflicted on their hospital beds.

On completion of her gruesome task, Granny makes lunch and seats the Covid doctor at the dining table.

‘Granny, how long does it take to get to heaven?’

‘I think it happens pretty quick,’ she reassures.

He nods and, between mouthfuls of cheese and tomato sandwich adds, ‘I’m going to live here, with you, until I’m as old as you are.’

With the meter ticking toward a million dead, and epidemiologists suggesting the number is ten times that, children will live with the effects of the 2020 pandemic year for the rest of their lives. On a global scale this means increased poverty and less health care, the latter already evident with the downturn in vaccination rates in developing nations. Children face decreased access to education and possible loss of family, particularly loss of family elders who are often primary carers for the young. While children seldom become severely unwell with Covid19 the pandemic’s broader ramifications magnify with passing time. The World Health Organisation warns that the improvements in maternal and child mortality made over the past few years could be wiped out as a result of the pandemic.

The effect of stress on pregnant women and young children is already known, as far back as the Dutch potato famine and the 1920 Spanish Flu long term negative consequences of stress have been recorded. In recent years studies have increased our understanding of how these effects occur. Stressors as disparate as a Chilean earthquake, the September 11 attacks, or the sinking of a Swedish ferry, show an association with low-birth weight babies. This likely results from the placenta going into overdrive and producing lots of stress hormones which may slow down foetal growth and increase the risk of early labour. Possible consequences of low birth weight include obesity and childhood diabetes. In the field of epigenetics, a relatively new science which studies small changes in DNA due to environmental factors, the effects of stress on generations to come is also being monitored. These DNA changes potentially pass from mother to baby and further. This new science has blurred our long-term dichotomy of nature vs nurture with respect to children’s physical and psychological health and warns that stressors such as the pandemic should be taken seriously. Government investment to decrease financial burdens on families and to prevent families being rent asunder by pandemic deaths will reap benefits in the long term.

On the penultimate day of September the clock radio wakes me with the catch phrase of this year’s news. At the million mark we have reached another “grim milestone,” as if this death and disease is purposefully leading to a destination. While the Reaper scythes down the elderly, the 2020 New York Film Festival awards its gold medal for ‘best social documentary’ to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s series, ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’. This unlikely success story won the hearts of Australians and left many tears at its completion. Remarkable for a program about preschool children visiting some, not infrequently grumpy, retirement village residents. The enthusiasm of geriatrician Prof Sue Kurrle, of the Intergenerational Care Project, was infectious, but it was the endearing relationships between the elderly and the children that stole the show.

Intergenerational care is relatively new in Australia whereas other countries have already successfully incorporated it into their care models. There are several studies underway to assess the benefits of these models which vary from frequents visits, as portrayed in the TV series, to shared campus arrangements. The benefits for the elderly were clear to any viewer of the series, as weekly the muscle strengths, personal interactions, and depressions scores of the participants improved. More difficult to measure was the benefit to the children but many parents commented on the youngsters’ improved sociability and empathy. Psycho-geriatrician Nancy Wadsworth writes that programs of this nature decrease harmful intergenerational conflicts and problems of social equity. Covid19 has laid bare just such a social equity conflict.

Nine months into the pandemic my social media feeds, with regular monotony, still posit the brilliant idea of simply isolating the elderly and the vulnerable. Then everyone else can get on with their lives and the economy won’t be trashed. Covid19 has brought to light swathes of armchair experts who have stumbled on blindingly simple insights that epidemiologists, medical experts, statisticians, and modellers have unfortunately missed. US Fox channel’s Tucker Carlson trumpeted the ‘isolate the elderly’ notion just shy of April 1st but he wasn’t playing a prank. The elderly are scattered throughout the community and often live within family groups. The latter is particularly the case in multicultural and disadvantaged communities. How, in Australia, would we isolate all these vulnerable people? Do we reopen Sydney Harbour National Park’s Q station? The views of Manly and The Heads are undoubtedly spectacular, but Victoria’s recent and bitter lesson has emphasised that Covid kills the elderly most efficiently if they are housed together.

Aired on the same US TV show a few weeks later was Texas republican governor Dan Patrick who believed that the elderly were entirely willing to die for the cause of keeping the economy running. This brave, if oblivious of his personal privilege, 79-year-old governor complained that no one had reached out to him as a senior citizen and said, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’

‘If that’s the exchange, I’m all in,’ he enthused, adding, ‘There are lots of grandparents out there like me.’

Senator Patrick may have been a trifle short of the mark as it didn’t take long for #NotDying4WallStreet to become the top Twitter trend. Grandparents were apparently not quite ready to stand in line waiting at the Soylent Green factory. Their generation knows that the year 2022 hasn’t yet arrived. When actually asked their opinion many elderly said they would die for their grandchildren but not for the economy.

In 2017 former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vehemently opposed the euthanasia bill stating, ‘I think we’ll regard this [bill] a sad milestone in our decline as a decent society.’

Covid has apparently adjusted his opinion which now seems to be that nature, presumably in the form of the virus, should be allowed to take its course and families should elect to keep their elderly relatives comfortable. This is a clever, if transparent, conflation of two different issues. One allows passive euthanasia, which in blocking the bill Abbott effectively vetoed, and the other sacrifices healthy and productive elderly for the mirage of economic stability. Abbott has apparently not looked to the consequences of unchecked viral outbreaks in countries like Brazil, India and, the ever-controversial Swedish model. His notions seem neither epidemiologically sound nor humanitarian.

I was Samuel’s age when I spent half a year living with my flamboyant, tousle-haired grandmother. A teacher, artist, writer, and feminist who carried her opinions like a standard before her. Those six months, the clearest memories of my childhood, remain wonder infused. The dawn excursions that saw us set off across the veld to the river while mist still hugged the hollows. She sketched and I discovered brilliant Agama lizards, more rainbow than creature, and watched the yellow-black weaver birds construct their intricate nests. Nests that clung precarious to the thinnest of willow twigs and danced above the water. At night, drowsy under the crazy-block quilt she’d sewn, she wove tales to drift me to sleep. The spy she’d met during the war. How fossils were discovered at Sterkfontein. Why her Pekingese was called Xiao-xiao. She wrote a book about elves and owls, mice and carrots, and dedicated it to her grand-daughter. The hard cover edition retains pride of place on my bookshelf.

South Australia – Flinders ranges – Ikara. Photo by Jacqui Greig

In the year before this nightmare one of fire and pestilence, I visited Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre within the Flinders ranges, known as Ikara, the meeting place, to Adnyamathanha people. They have been inhabitants of this rugged red-rock landscape of mountains and sheltering gums for tens of thousands of years. The fossils at nearby Brachina Gorge speak of further life forms so ancient they are mere swirls inscribed in stones.

At night, with stars burning holes in the darkness, there is a welcome to country in Yura Ngawarla, Adnyamathanha language. Children from the city and local kids, who must have heard the tales a hundred times, sit with knees clasped before the fire and listen, intent faces lit by dancing shadows. Not one stirs as elders pass on culture and life advice the way humanity always has. Next day in Bunyeroo Valley, a red-capped robin, Awi Irta, alights on a reed and I know his brilliant feathered head is a consequence of ignoring his wife. Stories stay with us.

Western society, increasingly obsessed with the young and the beautiful, is quick to discount and discard the elderly. It isn’t surprising that in, Three Uneasy Pieces, Patrick White laments, ‘The callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers’. In contrast, Australian aboriginal communities nurture the importance of elders and their contribution to family life. In aboriginal lore age is less important than wisdom. The Australian Institute of Family Studies tells that, “[elders] hold stories of dreaming, culture, and injustices suffered in the past and keep them safe for youth to understand their place in the world.” In some communities the elders are the only remaining people who speak the local language. Sole survivors to pass on a legacy of words.

The city of Leganes, located on the outskirts of Madrid, is prosaically named after the slime the town was built on and is where suspects of the 2004 Madrid train bombing blew themselves up to evade capture. It is also the only place outside of Melbourne with a street named after Australian rock band AC/DC. In Leganes a group of researchers from Montréal collaborated with doctors from the Autonomous University of Madrid in a human longevity study. They found that elderly who were connected with strong family and social networks had longer ten-year survival. However, merely being part of the family isn’t enough, those people who were respected and who felt they played an important role in family life benefitted most. Blue zones are areas of the world, such as Okinawa in Japan and Icaria in Greece, that boast the highest number of centenarians. These super-elderly have many dietary and exercise habits in common but they are also respected and socially active members of their families and community. Mutual dependence within families increases longevity and decreases depression in the elderly while the young benefit with culture and wisdom.

These days the waiting room chairs stand spaced and the friendly baskets of tattered magazines have disappeared. Patients wait behind masks, absorbed in their phone screens. The silent glide of the door admits a young boy and his grandfather. Hands cup at the sanitation station, clear solution pumped and dutifully spread. The old man sits with the slow deliberation of age and his grandson leans against him, his small hand resting on the man’s arm. The tan of youth as brown as the liver spots of age. Who is looking after who?

I comment to my GP, we’ve known each other since hospital resident days, on the boy and grandfather. He frowns, concerned that the pandemic will leave a generation of anxious, germophobe children in its wake. Psychologists reassure us that if we talk openly and honestly with children, and are not afraid to sometimes say, ‘I don’t know’, they will keep trusting the adults around them and feel safe. Learning to regularly wash our hands, and cough and sneeze into our elbows, are likely long term positive public health measures. Children should not be shielded from the truth, rather they need honest answers and simple, concrete explanations with positive messages. ‘Let’s wash our hands so we can stay safe,’ being better than threatening with the risk of infection. Australia’s 2020 children’s laureate Ursula Dubosarsky captures the essence with her Covid kitten poem:

‘What can we do?’ ‘Well wash your paws,’
Her mother said, ‘And all your claws.’

‘We’ll stay inside a shut the door.
You’ll laugh and hide and read and draw’

And wait until the morning when
Our big old world is right again.

Michelle rings to discuss the latest news, President Trump’s admission to hospital with Covid. Despite deriding and ignoring all scientific advice this elderly man will receive the latest antibody and anti-viral treatments.

Michelle tells me Samuel has created a ‘torch thermometer’ to temperature check each customer entering his Covid-safe shop. Samuel, whose home life is a chaotic mix of itinerates, dogs, cats, processed food and late nights, needs his grandmother more than ever during this pandemic. Not only to decently bury deceased Lego figurines, but for stability, and reassurance, and simple joy. When our grandchildren ask us how we lived now, will we with confidence reply that we walked the pandemic tightrope fairly?

When my son was six months old I bundled him onto the long Sydney to Johannesburg flight to visit his great-grandmother. Each day of our time together she held him in her arms. Weeks later, as the smoke-hazed veld dipped below the wing of the plane circling away from Tambo International airport, I knew I would never see her again. My son grew up with stories of the woman who wrote the “carrot- elf” book and we have a photo of four generations together. At ninety-three my grandmother’s hair was still not grey.


References:

“Aboriginal Cultural Tours: Proudly sharing Adnyamathanha culture with you.” Wilpena Pound Resort, www.wilpenapound.com.au/do/cultural-tours/.

“Australian Birds.” Red capped Robin – Aboriginal information, mdahlem.net, 3 Sept. 2019, mdahlem.net/birds/19/redcrobn_abo.php.

“Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing.” Australian Government: Australian institute of Family Studies, Child Family Community Australia, Sept. 2014, aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/strengths-australian-aboriginal-cultural-practices-fam/theme-3-elderly-family-members.

“Tony Abbott joins Paul Keating in opposing Victoria’s euthanasia bill.” The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/21/tony-abbott-joins-paul-keating-in-opposing-victorias-euthanasia-bill.

Armitage, Richard, and Laura Nellums. “COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly.” The Lancet, vol. 5, no. 5, 19 Mar. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30061-X.

Baker-Jordan, Skylar. “Thanks, Mr President, but I asked my grandparents and they don’t want to die for your economy.” The Independent, 24 Mar. 2020.

Dubosarsky, Ursula. Ursula Dubosarsky: Australian writer – Children’s laureate 2020-2021, ursuladubosarsky.squarespace.com/.

Fitzgerald, Anneke, et al. “A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits.” The Conversation, 3 Sept. 2018.

McArdle, Megan. “Here’s why it won’t work to just isolate the elderly and vulnerable.” The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/03/heres-why-it-wont-work-just-isolate-elderly-vulnerable/.

Schiele, M., Gottschalk, M., & Domschke, K. (2020). The applied implications of epigenetics in anxiety, affective and stress-related disorders – A review and synthesis on psychosocial stress, psychotherapy and prevention. Clinical Psychology Review, 77, 101830.

Torche, F. (2011). The Effect of Maternal Stress on Birth Outcomes: Exploiting a Natural Experiment. Demography, 48(4), 1473-1491.

Wadsworth, Nancy S., and Peter J. Whitehouse. “Future of Intergenerational Programs.” The Encyclopaedia of Elder Care, edited by Eugenia L. Siegler, Elizabeth Capuzeti, and Mathy Mezey, Fourth ed., Prometheus Books, 2004, p. 188.

White, Patrick. Three Uneasy Pieces. First ed., Jonathan Cape, 1988, p. 41.

Wintour, Patrick. “Tony Abbott: some elderly Covid patients could be left to die naturally.” The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/01/tony-abbott-some-elderly-covid-patients-could-be-left-to-die-naturally.

Yoshikawa H, Wuermli AJ, Britto PR, et al. Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short- and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions. J Pediatrics. 2020;223:188-193. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.020

Zunzunegui, M., Béland, F., Sanchez, M. et al. Longevity and relationships with children: the importance of the parental role. BMC Public Health 9, 351 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-351

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The Hosts, Selin Aydogar

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Mask on, spray, wipe, repeat.

The television on the wall sits above me playing the News. It’s always the same old thing and I prefer not to watch it, but the customers always rather watch the news than some random movie.

‘Another fifteen people from Shadow Falls in Sydney taken to ‘The Island’ today. That makes a total of thirty-six hosts this week. Authorities at ‘The Island’ are still refusing to provide any information on this matter. In other news…’

Shaking my head, the itch in my nose makes me play with my mask. Fifteen people have gone to ‘The Island’. Every day it just keeps increasing— I wonder what those poor people are doing there. How are they surviving without any sort of communication? Shaking my head again, I continue wiping the excess water off the cups before I put them into the sterilising machine with my clear latex gloves. A customer leaves the table, her cash payment in a clear plastic sleeve, winking at me. I walk towards her seat, hospital grade disinfectant spray and wipe in hand, ready to sanitise the table and chair. Focusing on my task at hand, I make sure that everything is thoroughly cleaned for the next person. I take the cash back to the register and ring it up. Finally having a moment to myself, I take a sip of my water bottle and regard the customers. Plain black mask, plain white mask, floral pattern, skulls. There is something so familiar about the way these people behave. Everyone is acting the same yet adding their own version to it. The guy in the back cleans his AirPods with wipes before putting them in his ear, he puts his mask on a tissue before sanitising his hands and taking a sip of his coffee—which he insisted be placed in his reusable cup. An older woman behind him wipes the table first, sanitises and then puts the mask in her bag. My eyes stray from her and follow the sight of Leon, my co-worker as he takes the temperature of the people waiting at the door.

I spent a few days of the week here at the Café and some days at the Lab where I intern. My interest in science only grew as the pandemic continued and my working at the Lab only heightened my love for it. A few months back, I discovered a new organism which could potentially cure many diseases. It was a big breakthrough and my work was headlined. Tomorrow I had a meeting with my supervisor, and I was itching for it to come.

As I observe the café once more, the reality of our situation hits me again. It’s utterly disappointing and sad that we have to accept this as our new normal. I like to think that this is a big test from God. From Him to the world. Perhaps to treat each other better, perhaps to learn to be hygienic. Or maybe it’s to understand how much freedom we have compared to others. Because truly we don’t know the value of freedom until it is taken from us.

I remember the day that I found out. In all honesty, I didn’t think anything of it. In fact, I had made a joke about it. Lena, my cousin in Melbourne called me as I was walking into work to tell me. She was laughing, ‘They found a new disease, it’s on its way to Sydney.’

I had responded with giggles of my own, ‘I’m sure it’s fine.’

I feel like the world had personally jinxed me. I mean, I know that logically I wouldn’t have been the only one to underestimate it but sometimes logic flies away.

I have never seen anything as eerie as this. The streets were empty, with a stray person walking their dog here and there. The shops were filled with people in masks, rushing to buy their essentials before they rushed back home to change their clothes and disinfect their food. Toilet paper was gone as were any other perishables. We were in lockdown, barely allowed to leave our homes. Each suburb looked different, some civilians in certain areas were more cautious. Always with a mask and gloves on. In others, some were more laid back. No concept of social distancing or masks. The suicide rate was higher than ever. Some people had hope and others didn’t. It’s as if this big grey cloud has just been hovering over the earth. I could taste the sadness in the air. If I thought my anxiety was bad before the pandemic, then I don’t know what I was thinking at all. I was worse than ever. But it was nice having my family home.

Oh, how I missed the freedom to sit at a café with my mum without the fear of getting ill. Or even having the opportunity to reluctantly go to the gym. My family; aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents… we didn’t see each other for about three months. I never thought I would miss the smell of my Grandma’s house or her yelling at me to stop being lazy and help cook. Things got better, and then they got worse. There were so many theories floating around the world. Was this a manmade virus?

Society started to change, the hope of going back to normal was long gone and we all had to accept our fate, that our world had been altered forever. There was no adequate vaccine so when things started to get really bad the authorities took the infected and placed them on an Island. Completely isolated from the world, with no way to communicate. The streets were filled with paraphernalia about ‘The Island’, a constant reminder of so many people’s fate. But I think the world started to relax, until they realised that it would be their family, their friends who would be there, with no way to see or talk to them. Soon, so many people were sent there that the world felt quiet. There was barely a hustle on the streets, some people liked the quiet and others didn’t. I didn’t really mind but there were some moments when I would be in the shopping centre and something as simple as a tranquil food court would make me upset.

The virus mutated, impacting people in different ways. First the signs were minor: fever and a cough. But this virus evolved into something scarier— more distinctive. The biggest impact of the virus then became physical appearance. Faces would become distorted with features morphing into one another, hair would fall out. Some people died and some didn’t. Most didn’t, but they were changed forever anyway. Things started to go awry, it became more than just about a virus. The authorities believed that we should live in a ‘clean society’. Meaning; aesthetic. They didn’t want the ‘deformed’ around us, claiming that it will cause mass hysteria and panic. So they sent them away. Unfortunately, most of civilisation also supported this idea. Their minds and souls were still working the same; they were merely a host. The virus would come and spread its wings around us like some sort of dark fairy and sprinkle us with its dust. The world felt eerie in its presence.

The world changed, for the better or worse I’m not sure. That answer will depend on the person. The virus didn’t care for status; the rich and the powerful were also sent to the Island. I remember reading somewhere that this was a whole scheme to start a new civilisation. A new world, with new concepts blooming from fresh soil. Thousands of people went to the Island first as volunteers, with the intention of not coming back. This was the first bad sign to me. Would thousands of people really leave everything behind for the sake of society? From what the authorities told us, those people didn’t receive any rewards either.

Interesting.

‘Hera!’ I come out of my stupor and look at Leon.

‘Sorry! I was just day dreaming.’ I give him a small smile as I place my bottle back down on the bench.

‘No worries. But I think your shift is over.’ I look outside after his words and notice it’s nightfall. The dark sky is bare, only with a few glittering stars and moonlight to illuminate us.

‘It is too. Today went by so fast,’ I say to Leon as I untie my apron and hang it up on the hook. After bidding farewell, I grab my bag, sanitise my hands and leave the café. Just as I’m fixing my bag on my shoulder and grabbing my keys, I hear soft footsteps behind me.

‘Hera.’ I turn around and see Leila, an old friend of mine. A friend who the last time I spoke to was being sent off to the Island because she was a host. She didn’t look much different than before. Only a slight difference in her nose and lips. If anything, it just looked like she’d had bad plastic surgery.

‘Leila… What are you doing here? Weren’t you on the Island?’ I take a step back from shock. My heart pounds as I try to register exactly what I’m seeing. Her hair is the same light brown and her eyes the same dark brown. Seeing her in front of me for the first time in years brings back all the memories we had together. Leila and I were always close but in the last year before the virus hit, things were quite tense between us and we were just never as close as we had been before. She reached out to me when she got infected, saying she was leaving for the Island as soon as possible. I knew that we had both changed and our friendship would never be the same as it once was, but I would have never wished that on her. The thought of not seeing her really upset me and I mourned for her. I mourned for her family. But there was just nothing I could do. Now, seeing her across from me is something I wasn’t expecting. In fact, it’s illegal.

‘Hera, I escaped.’ She walks towards me. ‘There is so much I need to tell you.’

I look up to the night sky for some clarity and the stars wink at me mockingly.

‘I’m not sick, don’t worry. But we need to talk right now.’

‘Um, okay okay. Get in the car.’ I shuffle nervously towards my old Wrangler, my scruffy black and white converses squeezing my feet after my long day at work.

I drive to the lookout my friends and I always used to go and on occasion for a breath of fresh air I would go alone. Opening the door, I stretch my legs and face forward. I’m not sure I want to hear what she has to say.

‘What are you doing here?’ I fiddle with my evil eye necklace as I wait for her to speak up.

‘I escaped. Hera, life there is different. They’re starting things from scratch. All the powerful people came together to build something new.’ She rushes out.

‘Wait, what? I don’t really understand what you’re saying.’ I continue to fiddle with my necklace.

‘Okay, okay. Look, when I got there, things were peaceful. It wasn’t some place where there were doctors everywhere. Everyone was friendly, acting like they weren’t infected. There were restaurants and fields, farms and animals. Isn’t that weird for some place that was meant to be an isolated, deserted island? Because that’s what they told us, that it was an isolated, deserted place. It was the start of a civilisation and the Island was rich too. All these big, powerful people bought their money and built. Hera, they built. There are buildings, businesses, currency, everything is there.’

I stare at her, unable to form words. It’s one thing to see someone who I never thought I’d see again, and it’s another to hear what she’s saying. I guess what I read about is true. But I still have questions. What is she doing here? How did she get here? I feel a small sting on my palm and look down. Blood trickles down my hand, caressing my skin maliciously. I watch it fall— as if in slow motion— down my finger and onto my shoes. In my hand lay pieces of my necklace. The royal blue stones winking at me, the silver stones tainted by my blood. I didn’t realise I was putting that much pressure on the pendant. Leila knows me well enough to realise I’m too stunned to speak. So, she continues talking. I wish she hadn’t.

‘I met someone there. He’s the son of one of the powerful men. He told me everything. Hera, there is a cure to this virus on the Island but they’re keeping it to themselves until the time is right, they’re going to sell it but there is no virus left. They’re cutting off communication with the world. This is like a selection. After most people died, they made a list of all the next people to depart. One or two from every family that’s left. Mainly people with important skills or jobs, but random people as well. Our physical effects are something else. Somehow, they’ve given us something to change our appearance, I’m not sure how and Titus doesn’t know either. But they’re saying that we’re positive, that we’re hosts when we’re not. Titus has connections here, that’s how I was able to come back. I left illegally.’

‘Leila, why are you here? Why are you telling me this and not the rest of the world?’ I place my hand with the broken pendant on my heart, trying to stop myself from hyperventilating.

‘Titus has been helping me keep track of my family. No one is left. I have no one but you. H-Hera,’ she stutters, her eyes a brutal mix of emotion and fierceness. ‘I saw the list. They saw the news about your new discovery in the Labs. They want you and you’re next.’ She blinks at me, ‘this is your warning call.’

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Deadly Traffic, Jacqui Greig

Photo credit: gmacfadyen

The email blipped onto my phone as I boarded a flight from Diqing to Kunming in China’s south western Yunnan province. I tapped the little aeroplane icon and walked down the jet bridge. Later, as the Himalayas passed below, stereoscopic and horizon-wide, I read, ‘A mystery virus is sickening people in Wuhan. Stay away from markets.’ It was 14 Jan 2020 and I was on my way home to an Australia still smoke-dazed from its worst bushfire season ever. Given the many discussions I’d had with my brother, a biomedical engineer researching HIV at Massachusetts General Hospital, the email should have alarmed me. Perhaps it was getting up at an ungodly hour to reach the airport, or the brief but disconcerting concern that my visa wasn’t valid, that left me exhausted and unconcerned. I, like the rest of the soporific world, pushed the message out of my mind. The truth is that for all of us this story started long before now.

On the morning of my eleventh birthday, I had met an African Spitting Cobra and a dinosaur. To my brothers and me, the scaly creature rustling from the veldt on its hind legs with its giant claws tucked against its chest was a velociraptor. The snake, also scaly but slimmer and agile, didn’t stay; it swam off, a gold flash in the grass. The dinosaur turned its inquisitive snout in our direction and sniffed our scent on the dawn air. We three crouched, entranced as we watched the creature continue its purposeful progress. That was the first and last time I saw a pangolin. The beauty of other animals over the years: a cheetah downing its prey in a swirl of dust, the iridescent joy of a hovering sunbird, or the silver gleam of a diving otter, never dimmed the privilege I felt at glimpsing the elusive scaly anteater.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, subsist on ants and termites, a preference sufficient to make them lovable. Pangolins are ant devourers extraordinaire. They possess the elongated sticky tongues of other myrmecophages and their tough, keratin-lined stomachs must, for ants, be comparable to the voracious maw of the sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi. Ant venom has the questionable distinction of being the only acid named after an animal. Formic acid packs a punch but the scaly exterior of the pangolin is ideally suited to its diet. Pangolins are the only mammals that boast of such armour which they put to good use defending themselves by curling into a tight ball and swinging their sharp tail to ward off predators. This defensive tactic accounts for their name, which derived from Malay, pengguling, means ‘one who rolls up,’ but it also leaves them vulnerable to poaching. Humans, unlike leopards, overcome it with ease and our appetite for the keratin scales which protected pangolins for millennia, now renders them the most trafficked animal in the world.

Keratin is a remarkable protein, as lustrous as hair and as tough as hooves; it constitutes rhino horn as well as pangolin scales. Despite being ubiquitous, the protein has resulted in these two animals being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list. This means that they may not be hunted or traded for any reason other than scientific purposes. No study has ever found keratin to have therapeutic properties.

Chinese friends explain that pangolins’ mythical appearance makes them prized. What my child-eyes believed was a dinosaur is perceived in China as a small dragon. When rolled up, pangolins resemble fabled dragon eggs.

The rarer pangolins become, the more they cost, paradoxically increasing the demand for pangolin meat. For a host to provide expensive pangolin, or other rare wild animal meat, for guests or employees shows generosity and improves face. Along with the perceived healing properties of the scales, this has skyrocketed the [1]  price of pangolins. As recently as 2018, the Chinese government, in  Implementation of the Rural Revitalization Strategy, encouraged farming of wild animals for sale in wet markets as a path out of poverty for millions of rural poor. The practice was further encouraged on Chinese television and by internet celebrities. According to Beijing University’s Professor Lü Zhi, wild animal farming is largely unregulated and many animals for sale are wild-caught ‘laundered’ animals. Particularly vulnerable are species near impossible [2]  to breed in captivity like pangolins.

It’s autumn in Hangzhou city with hawkers shouting their wares: framed red jianzhi[1], jade and silver bangles, and wood carved croak-frogs. With leaves already tinged yellow, the ancient gingko trees lining the street shade the afternoon warmth. A brisk walk uphill is required to reach my destination, the local Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) centre. Along the way, aromas of frying oil, meat and spice assail my nostrils,  smells that become an assault as I pass the local ‘stinky tofu’ dealer. Wooden benches cluster about the entrance where the TCM patients wait. Inside it is cool, cavernous, and quiet, the air is redolent of spices and dried plants: the reassuring scents of ancient knowledge. White-coated doctors staff the heavy counters where meticulous drawers, brass-labelled with artistic hanzi[2], stretch into the gloom. Atop the cabinets reside china-blue medicine jars guarding secret balms interspersed with glass jars of animal feti, snakes and pickled roots. Time is spent unravelling each person’s concern. Despite many years of absorbing western medicine, the gravitas of history and the spell of mythology overwhelm me and remind that the Western scientific approach can neglect with patients.

I ask whether pangolin scales are available. The prompt denial seems more to deflect this waiguo ren[3] than to communicate the truth. The Chinese name for pangolin scaleschuan shan ji, means ‘piercing through a mountain’, which epitomises their perceived strength and explains why they remain listed in hundreds of TCM formulations. These formulations are used to improve lactation, menstrual disturbances and arthritic pains deemed due to cold, or damp. As unscientific prescriptions go, the notion that pangolin scales act as galactagogues is no more unlikely than the advice that fenugreek, nettle, blessed thistle and ginger improve breast-milk flow than we would like to admit. The latter remedies remain touted in Australia without any corroborating trial evidence.

Zootherapy, the use of animals for healing, was a world-wide phenomenon prior to the ascent of scientific medicine. As recently as 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics reveal that 80% of people in developing nations still rely on traditional medicines for their primary healthcare. Many modern medications derive from natural remedies, humble aspirin being one of the more notable. In Latin America, 584 animal species, ranging from the slimy — slugs, snails, and worms, to the magnificent — pumas, manatees and tapirs, are listed as having medicinal properties. The most renowned TCM practitioner of the Tang Dynasty (608-907), Sun Simiao, in his ethical treatise, Da Yi Jing Cheng- The Sincerity of Great Physicians, wrote of animal usage, ‘if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…the lives of animals and humans are equal.’ Today, TCM has drifted from this principle and, though practitioners may be reluctant to prescribe endangered animal parts, the raw ingredients remain readily available in shops. It may be easier to buy a whole pangolin shell than to obtain prepared medicine containing pangolin scales. Purchasers can then simply prepare the scales for personal use. The meteoric rise of an enormous, cashed up Chinese middle class, coupled with the Communist Party’s ambition to elevate TCM to the status of Western medicine, has left vulnerable species on the edge of extinction; a precipice they were already pushed toward by climate change and habitat destruction.

On my January flight home, I was unaware the plane was tracking north-east of the main pangolin smuggling route from Myanmar into China. The poor of Myanmar, a strife-torn country with one of the largest income gaps in the world, are easily exploited by wildlife smuggling chains. The smuggling routes stretch from Mandalay northwards through the border town of Muse and the poorly policed, casino hub of Mongla, before crossing into China near Ruili. Investigators from the environmental group Sustainable Asia report that smugglers take pangolins only as far as Ruili due to stringent police road checks in China. From Ruili, transportation becomes the buyer’s responsibility. To circumvent this, many Chinese keen to sample Pangolin and other wild meat travel to Yangon in Southern Myanmar. There, a restaurant opposite the international airport openly serves these delicacies. It is possible that one of these trafficking routes, fanning out across the vastness below my plane, facilitated the transmission of Covid-19 into our world.

I hadn’t been home long before I started receiving panicked emails and messages from friends in China. People, many people, were dying, and my friends were terrified and angry. News of doctors and academics being silenced abounded. The world’s slumber was disturbed by a new, deadly, crown virus that had started in a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Neither zoonoses nor plagues are a novelty, despite the virus initially being called ‘novel’. Zoonoses and coronaviruses are devastatingly familiar to doctors and epidemiologists. In medieval times, the plague was deemed miasmic, caused by ‘bad air’. Now, the commonly accepted theory is that the plague was a zoonosis, an infection that crosses the species barrier from animal to human. The plague bacterium, aptly named Yersinia pestis, was ably assisted by fleas in its transitional leap from rats to humans. Tuberculosis came to us from cows, psittacosis from parrots, and rabies from any animal that bites. We risk disease if we live too close to animals either by domesticating them, encouraging their overpopulation or by driving them from their homes by natural habitat destruction. In the last decade, 75% of new diseases have been zoonotic; the barrier between human and animal has always been gossamer thin.

The route Covid-19 [3]  took to reach our lungs may never be fully elucidated. The market where it is believed to have started has been disinfected before reopening. However, scientists rapidly identified and sequenced the genome of the causative coronavirus, a member of the virus group that caused recent deadly epidemics like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and which has long annoyed us with the common cold. Bats have evolved to co-exist with coronaviruses for millennia, but humans virtually never catch the virus from bats. For this leap, an intermediate host is needed to facilitate the gene mutations that help the virus attach to human cells, which it does using its corona, or crown, of surface ‘bubbles’. For SARS, the intermediate host was the civet; for MERS, it was camels. As urbanisation destroys their habitat, bats come into closer contact with intermediate animal hosts. The market atmosphere of stressed wild animals in crowded cages further increases the likelihood of the gene leap occurring. Covid-19 shares 77% of its RNA with a bat coronavirus, while its receptors share 99% of their RNA with a pangolin coronavirus.

The road to the Covid-19 pandemic is pathed with ironies. China had, as recently as 2019, planned an outright ban on pangolin trade. Since 1989, pangolins have been on China’s level II protection list, which bans eating pangolin meat but allows scientific research and medicinal use. The elevation to stage I protection, banning all use, would come into effect in Jan 2020. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, China placed a ban on the sale of wild animal meat, but it was only temporary. China is not alone in selling wild animals in wet markets; the phenomenon is common in South East Asian and many African countries.

In the United States, repeated warnings concerning the likelihood of a pandemic were met with the shuttering of the Pandemic Preparedness Unit in 2018. The same year Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern”. When President Trump said on March 6, 2020 that the pandemic was an “unforeseen problem…that came out of nowhere”[4], he had never been further from the truth.

The tragic tale of pangolins encapsulates the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic: the environmental destruction and climate change leave bats and pangolins vulnerable; the poverty and inequity encourage poaching to help people to survive; and the greed strips every resource from our environment at the lowest cost and sells it to the highest bidder[4] . Over [5] the years, my heart has wrenched each time I read of another border-police haul of illegal pangolin scales. I have felt grief that my children would never see this elusive and gentle creature wending its way through a honeyed African dawn. How much more I should have worried.

Bibliography

Alves, Romulo R., and Humberto N. Alves. “The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 7, no. 9, 7 Mar. 2011, doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-9.  

“CITES Appendices.” CITES Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php.  

“Pangolin.” South Africa’s showcase of our collective heritage, southafrica.co.za, www.southafrica.co.za/pangolin.html.  

Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “Covid-19 Carriers: What Do China’s Wildlife Protection Laws Say about Pangolins?” China Briefing, Denzan-Shira, 1 Apr. 2020, www.china-briefing.com/news/covid-19-carriers-chinas-wildlife-protection-laws-pangolins/.  

Friedman, Uri. “We Were Warned.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215/.  

Greenfield, Patrick. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2020.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Pangolins Poverty and Porous borders.” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 27 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11878-Podcast-Pangolins-poverty-and-porous-borders.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Why are pangolins so prized in China?” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 14 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11855-Podcast-Why-are-pangolins-so-prized-in-China-.  

Lyons, Suzannah, and Natasha Mitchell. “How did coronavirus start? Where did bats get the virus from and how did it spread to humans?” ABC News: ABC Science, ABC News, 9 Apr. 2020.  

Qiu, Jane. “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus.” Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2020.  

Ranasinghe, Kashmi. “Going viral: how a virus mutates between animals.” CSIRO Scope, CSIRO, 7 Apr. 2020, blog.csiro.au/virus-mutation/.  


Endnotes

[1] Papercuts – a Chinese traditional art form that dates back to the 6th century ACE

[2] Chinese characters

[3] Foreigner

[4] Quotes from ‘We were warned’ The Atlantic March 18, 2020.


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