plague autumn

I left Japan before Fukushima, but I watched friends there try to figure out what to do, how to live under the constant invisible threat every media outlet screamed at them was present among them. People described empty streets, empty trains, traveling for miles and miles outside Tokyo just to find somewhere to stay away from the radiation. One friend described huddling nervous in the cramped confines of a country inn they’d visited when I was there, making me envious with their tales of strolling through cornfields and trying every kind of wine the town had to offer. Now they paid over twice as much for accommodation in the resort town where everyone was too afraid of radiation taint to drink the wine.

I think about this as the panic over Ebola rises. I have been watching the story since July, because any time Ebola gets onto the airwaves I pay attention. I did every childhood project that wasn’t on chemical or biological warfare on the disease. The first non-fiction book I remember reading was on Ebola, and I read The Hot Zone when I was ten. I loved reading about disasters–usually natural, pertaining to tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, with a soft spot for volcano eruptions–but diseases in particular fascinated me. Since my inability to rise to the mathematical and scientific requirements of the sciences led me to table much of that interest as I grew up, I’m no longer sure what it was that drew me to the documentaries on Ebola, dengue fever, and the bubonic plague. But if the way I used to hope for a hurricane is any indication, I relished the chance to flee somewhere with my family on “an adventure.” We would all go somewhere warm and safe, and we wouldn’t have to go to school, was the thought–especially since the designated location for hurricane flight was simply “inland.” I believed in the certainty of warmth, safety and togetherness with a child’s conviction, though–not out of any exposure to actual pandemics, or to preppers who planned for them.

“Preppers” weren’t a thing, then, at least not that I knew of–and indeed I didn’t start hearing about them until first Y2K and then, later, when waves of tea-partiers and the like started burrowing underground, convinced that Obama’s election was a herald of the end-times. As the cultural love affair with zombies took off, and media outlets started playing the zombie card to get people to watch preppers in documentary form and in fiction, my interest nose-dived even further–since, as stated flatly many times, in the event of a zombie apocalypse I’d rather just die outright, thank you very much, than try to fend off the shambling hordes of humanity. Even if you managed to survive, what would be the point? You’d be this guy.

I still have no interest in prepping. But the rising tide of news, none of it good, about Ebola has painted rather plainly how childish was my obsession with disasters and the idea that everyone I loved could be safe, cocooned in a kind of permanent holiday world. I have to fly through two of the airports through which 95% of the incoming passengers from the affected countries pass. I will see my husband, my parents, my coworkers, my dogs–who aren’t safe in the eye of the public, actual diagnosis or no. I imagined my adulthood would be spent alone, perhaps with a large menacing dog for safety, in an apartment of glass, and had this come to pass I might maintain the hope of sparing those I loved with contamination. But of course now I know even had I remained as steadfastly lonely an adult as I was a teenager, I’d still, in such an event as this, have caused my dog to be put down or at least carted off to somewhere dark and lonely for an indeterminate amount of time (I still expect public outcry to doom the dog in Texas, frustrating as that is).

It is difficult to try and take in news about Ebola without being haunted by platitudes. “Enjoy the time you have,” “I’m not going to live in fear,” “Don’t let the media tell you how to feel,” etc. That is what people used to say when the terror alert level took on tinges of scarlet. Usually they were people I respected and otherwise strove to please, so I tried to make their platitudes slide past with little friction within the doggedly conspiracy-free mindset in which I worked. The way they talked was not without its overtones, however inadvertent, of dickish machismo: “Only cowards fear terrorist attacks.” “What, you’re afraid of anthrax? Don’t be one of the sheeple, man.”

But I didn’t plan on an adulthood where my heartstrings would be on the line. And if I am the cause of any of the very many threads of humanity I care about being cut, that is not okay. It will never be okay. No platitude–of another variety, then, the “it wasn’t your fault,” and “there was nothing you could do,” and “no one could predict this”–will make it be okay. I have no great wish to die, but I expect the fever would render my brain into pulp in short order, so I wouldn’t have to endure much pain. If I had to watch others go, though? People I loved? Knowing (or even not) I am the reason they are sick?

I fear that, yes. And I am justified in doing so.


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