‘To state the obvious, we seem to be turning a pretty dark corner now,’ said Joe Biden, this week, gloom-monger-in-chief. During the darkest years of the 20th century, people whistled cheery songs to spread a little happiness. Now we crack apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow. Panic is our default mode. We are running out of everything — oil/water/food/land — except catastrophes.
The secularisation of eschatology has transported the Four Horsemen from the Book of Revelation to the offices of the United Nations. In the 20th century, they concentrated on war and famine but as those have been tamed by the balance of terror and global supply chains, increasingly we have been pestered by plague. It’s not just apocalypse now, or now and then, but again and again.
In the 1990s, the World Health Organisation sounded the alarm about the ‘globesity’ epidemic, caused by ‘obesogenic’ environments.’ This was interrupted by the Y2K bug. The UN held a summit to discuss preparations for ‘the most significant, extensive, and disruptive crisis we have ever faced,’ as one ‘expert’ put it, who wrote a book on how to survive including tips on how to build a toilet. Another expert declared that his Y2K plans were premised on a very simple assumption; ‘the government of the US, as we currently know it, will fall on 1/1/2000. Period.’ Not quite. The great blessing of Y2K was that it had a definite use-by date. Climate change Cassandras have experienced the same embarrassment when the end of the world refused to show up in time for their predictions. But as the old adage might have put it, never run after a bus or an apocalypse, there’s always another one coming.
11 September, 2001 transmogrified the secular terror of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation into the Islamic terror of Al-Qaeda with innovative ways of bringing their obsession with death into our lives; turning planes, trucks, vans, even kitchen knives into weapons. Then, only weeks after 9/11 we had the Amerithrax anthrax attacks, which turned out to be a biological war waged by a mad scientist in the US biodefence lab at Fort Detrick. But in between the ongoing war being waged on the West by jihadis, and the Global Financial Crisis, the plagues have been piling up.
In 2002, the West Nile virus struck, with portents worthy of Alfred Hitchcock; the whine of bloody-thirsty mosquitoes; crows that dropped dead from the sky; horses which sickened. As one paper put it, panic spread and a tabloid fever gripped the land. Like our current plague, most people infected with the virus never even realised they had it but unlike Covid, it was not parlayed into a global catastrophe. Since then we have had Sars in 2003, bird flu in 2005, the great e-coli outbreaks which started in 2006, swine flu in 2009, the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and Zika virus in 2016.
Like the fulfilment of a prophecy foretold, all the previous health panic-demics were but a dress rehearsal for the great Covid calamity. It has dwarfed its predecessors and with its endless restrictions on everything, already feels longer than the Hundred Years War. Who can even remember why they called it a novel coronavirus? Because it’s a long story? There’s certainly nothing new about it now. The Grinch has not just stolen Easter and Christmas, it is settling in for the New Year. Imprisoned in our homes and our colonies, we are learning to live with it, or at least with the commandments of our Covid Commissars; we avoid touching out faces by holding a wine glass in each hand; we socially distance from the fridge; we break wind to cover a cough; when we hear a joke, we wait two weeks to see if we’ve got it. We spot an outbreak even before traces of virus show up in the sewerage through the scarcity of toilet rolls in the supermarket. We are familiar with regional variations; in the Barossa valley this week, they were stocking up on sausage and cheese for the Wurst Käse scenario.
As if that weren’t bad enough, we are being haunted on national television by the miserable ghosts of prime ministers past. Messrs Rudd and Turnbull are keen to mandate the sort of media diversity practised in Cuba, where not a day goes by without reflections of Fidel Castro. Here it involves a daily apparition of the disgruntled Bobbsey Twins of Australian politics, extolling the dangers of the Murdoch empire, which, according to a graphic cigarette-style warning which Mr Rudd tweeted to the faithful, leads to a refusal to follow public health advice, belief in conspiracy theories, distrust of scientific experts and climate change denialism. It’s just a short step from this to the allegation that must surely come, that the Murdoch empire created the coronavirus, as predicted in an episode of The Simpsons, which aired on the Fox network in November 2010. Coincidence? You be the judge. In it, a secret conclave of America’s media empires meet to come up with the next phoney-baloney crisis to put Americans back where they belong, in dark rooms, glued to their televisions, too terrified to skip the commercials. The evil executives decide to go with a good old- fashioned public health scare; a new disease, so no one is immune. It will be like ‘the summer of the shark’ one exclaims, except instead of a shark, it’s an epidemic, and instead of summer, it’s all the time! To uphold standards, it can’t be a made-up contagion but they just happen to have a deadly disease so the only moral thing to do is release it into the general public. They get the Centre for Disease Disinformation to warn the community to stay tuned if they experience any of the symptoms, such as mild thirst, occasional hunger or tiredness at night, and blame outbreaks on cats. It’s a Purrfect Storm, Apocalypse Meow.
So, what’s Apocalypse Next? WHO knows, but they’re not telling. The jihadis, as Jesus would say, you will always have with you. Financial crises? You can take it to the bank. The next plague? Mad scientists in government-funded laboratories are no doubt cooking up something. If you want a reliable prediction, turn on the TV and start watching The Simpsons.
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