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  • James Tam

Coronavirus, Rumours, and Man’s Last Song

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Yet another plague scare is in the headlines, reminding me of Man’s Last Song [LINK], in which a chapter in the ‘utopian’ tale is devoted to recurrent plagues, and the corresponding mass neurosis and media manipulation.

The nature of the Wu Han coronavirus — now called SARI, coincidentally the name of the character in Man’s Last Song who succumbed to the fictional plague — must be quite threatening, hence the strong reaction from the Chinese government, effectively quarantining the City of Wu Han. But the number of casualties as of this morning — approximately twenty six — is far from sensational. There are 1.4 billion people in China. Out of 300+ million Americans, about 7000 have succumbed to the flu this season. These things happen.

But twenty-six deaths is disappointingly prosaic to Hong Kong, where some believe that a few dozens to a few thousand have recently been massacred by the police in Prince Edward Station. Many have chosen to believe that the official figures on SARI victims should be higher. Why? Beats me. Belief is all it takes to manufacture facts these days; and it’s difficult to argue with such "facts".

Years ago, nearly EVERYONE I knew believed in fake eggs from China. As I couldn’t contend with such a popular fact, but was tortured by logic and curiosity, I offered $2000 for each fake egg anyone could find, until my much deserved bankruptcy. Many years forth, I still have not received a single specimen of chicken-free ovum [LINK to Fake Eggs from China].

To be sure, I’m a proud Conspiracy Theorist. I refuse to be intimidated by the CIA’s term designed to discourage legitimate and logical queries. However, meaningful conspiracy theories must comprise at least three basic elements: motive, operational feasibility, and circumstantial evidence (as hardcore evidence is usually difficult to obtain by outsiders).

Just like the Fake Eggs saga, none of these fundamental features exists to suspect underreporting in SARI casualties.

First of all, motive. I can’t imagine any. If China wants to downplay the danger to avoid panic, it would not be effectively quarantining the City of Wu Han. That’s a hugely decisive and alarming step. If anything, inflating the numbers would help to justify the government’s precautionary move which, as usual, will draw criticisms from millions of existential complainers.

What about Operational Feasibility? Sometimes, local bureaucrats who stupidly get their municipality into avoidable trouble will try to cover up or doctor reports in an attempt to save their own asses. SARI does not appear to be in that category. The government has set up an on-line report of all suspected and confirmed cases, and updated death toll, throughout China — province by province, region by region — as well as the rest of the world. [LINK to Phoenix News] Thousands (probably tens of thousands, since this is China) of frontline workers have to be involved, all equipped with WeChat at top 4G speed, ultimately connected to millions. A tally of all the victims can be constructed in a matter of hours, if not minutes.

If the Chinese government wanted to invent figures just for fun, then the question is who gets to decide the continuously updated fictitious numbers? This important task cannot be be left to front-line workers. It has to be all the way up at Xi Jing Ping's level? Don’t laugh — you’ll find a huge number of Hong Kong citizens, well educated and overpaid and all that, who believe this scenario. If we construct a Trump-wall around Hong Kong, we’ll have the world’s largest asylum on Guinness Record.

Finally, evidence. What?! I keep forgetting that evidence is completely irrelevant these days, so, scrap this one.

Back to the fictional world of Man’s Last Song, in which Hong Kong is again clean and sensible. Excerpts from Chapter 6.9 “Plague”:

" Ring around the roses

A pocketful of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down... .

Bugs in your tummy

Eating you up yummy

Pus here, pus there

We all get drowned... .

* * *

It happened. It had always happened. They said, on average, three times per century.

That was in the past. Since the twenty-first century, epidemics and pandemics had been striking once or twice every decade, depending on how it was defined, and whether the press was preoccupied with other calamities. Some plagues were alarming, but with so few deaths in the end it mortified those who sounded the alarm. Then, when all seemed well and everyone grew weary of neurotic warnings, a deadly one would hit mercilessly out of the blue.

It was like the viruses had a war plan.

"Now, you take H1N6 to create a panic in Brazil and Japan, confuse them with the unlikely geographic link; make it sensational, but take it easy on lives. Then you birds distract them with an outbreak of H5N1 in the wild. Make it visible okay? I want hundreds of thousands of carcasses piled up for the photo session, maybe somewhere in Alaska. Still, don't bother with the humans yet; tire them out, keeping their guard up continuously.

"You Pigs – hey wake up! – work on a nasty mutation in the meantime, better be good this time. Sneak in through Eastern Europe, Central America and Western China simultaneously. Make sure you go for the body count before they develop a vaccine. Questions?”


"Okay. Let's go bugs. Good luck!"

* * *

Some were deadly, but localised.

The Simian-flu pandemic of 2020 killed thirty million in nine months, mostly in Africa. The rest of the world watched dumbfounded, shivering and shrieking. They beefed up the quarantine mechanism. International relief efforts were confounded by the cost of vaccines. Some accused the manufacturers of rip-off margins. Others explained they were a business, not charity.

The International Community exchanged impassioned pleas and indignant accusations, urging each other to do something. Before a philosophical consensus on international justice was reached, the virus had retreated, disappeared, probably never to return again before putting on a new coat of genetic make-up. Another patented drug for the archive. See? See? We only have a small window of opportunity to recover research investments, not to say making a profit.

Other plagues affected practically every country with a paltry death toll. The H5N8 of 2033, for example, killed only twenty thousand. Just a dozen or so per country after China contributed eight thousand. It came and went like a hurricane, posturing to wipe out humanity according to prime time news in over one hundred countries.

Then there were the economic consequences.

The deadly Simian-flu was relatively negligible in economic terms. Even the price of precious metals – a key concern for many – remained stable during that tragic year for Africa. Thanks to resolute management policies, strong governments and a hungry populace, most mines stayed open. Once over, people soon referred to it as endemic, inching it out of collective memory. It was just another internal turmoil of Africa's.

The H5N8 thirteen years later was a different story. It raged for five months, with casualties hardly worth mentioning. But air traffic was down by sixty-eight percent, retail down by twenty-two, restaurants and entertainment a staggering eighty percent down. Global GDP slipped fifteen percent, enough to send the world tumbling down another recession. It was devastating for the global economy, a pandemic for sure.

The ranking of plagues depended on priority and politics. Nonetheless, people generally agreed why epidemics had become more fierce and frequent. Climate change, high density livestock husbandry, population density, frequent international travelling, et cetera, et cetera. Same old reasons. These things would not change, and no one could change them.

Conspiracy theorists offered more exciting reasons. Laboratories all over the planet were working round the clock, playing with the genes of bacteria and viruses. They worked overtime to tinker with the deadly unknown under microscopes, cutting and splicing the DNA and RNA of microbial Frankensteins, wondering what might happen to the Company's stock price if this hemagglutinin is surgically mated with that neuraminidase.

One stupid mistake, one inadvertent lapse in safety procedure, one leak for whatever reason, theft…. Terrible thoughts.

* * *

To Song Huan, only one plague mattered. The one of 2066. On the league table, it was neither here nor there – mediocre.

Deaths: about forty thousand. Sad, medium sad.

Duration: twenty-two weeks. So, so.

Affected countries: Nine.

Economic impact: fifty billion DEY (the International Currency Unit introduced in 2032, initially at one to three thousand US Dollars). Not insignificant, but affordable.

A few places were hit harder than others. Hong Kong was one of them, with a final body count of 11,753. Had it been 11,752, Huan wondered, would Sari have been spared by a one-in-eleven-thousand-seven-hundred-fifty-three chance?

Possibly. But it was 11,753, not 11,752.

Swine-flu, they said. How could that be? Pigs were practically extinct in Hong Kong outside frozen meat counters. Huan was neither a conspiracy theorist nor one who would question the professional findings of virologists. Nonetheless, he was puzzled.

So, the pigs killed Sari, or, rather, the mutant of a virus that killed pigs killed Sari. The Swine Flu first invaded Thailand, then mainland China, followed by Canada and a few European countries before making a U-turn to catch Hong Kong by surprise. Within twenty-one days of first occurrence, Hong Kong was at the top of the score board, with the highest number of deaths."

" Huan spent her last three days by her side, watching her slipping away, giving up. The only thing she could utter was, "Go, go, don't let Sung come." Sung did pay a brief visit, and Huan did not leave. Each visit was followed by a heavily drugged quarantine.

He knew the bugs might take him too; but the prospect felt like a relief at the time. The alternative of being left behind was more stressful.

For three days, he sat next to Sari, nodding off continuously. He had to wear a mask, looking like a pig himself. Sari sank deeper into delirium in spite of increasingly strong and experimental drugs. Huan held her hand during the final hours, stroking her hair, not knowing what else to do. The transition was unstoppable. Anyone could see that."

- END of Excerpts -

I take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy Chinese New Year, good health, and many fashionable face masks.

2020.1.24 James Tam

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