Love in the time of highly infectious respiratory diseases
Your father has sent an email. It begins: “You probably saw this but I see the World Health Organisation has issued a global alert warning to health authorities worldwide following outbreaks of a highly infectious respiratory disease in Hong Kong, southern China and Vietnam…” You hadn’t known this but you reply to say that you had. You tell him there’s nothing to worry about in Hanoi. He tends to worry for no reason (like when he emailed after hearing there was an earthquake in India, “just to be sure”).
But the next day you start to cough. A coincidence, surely, you think, hope, pray. The next day the cough worsens. It couldn’t be, could it? Just to be sure you — rather than drive yourself to a clinic or hospital — walk to the nearest chemist and buy your own antibiotics, cough syrup and vitamins before returning to your house to await your fate, vowing to be a better man, if you survive. The good news is you don’t die. Your chest clears over the course of a few days. The not so good news is Hanoi is officially on the frontline for this disease. You are told by your reliably pessimistic roommate from Australia that nurses and doctors are apparently avoiding the hospitals: “Yeah mate. It’s that bad.” He’s panicked enough to be considering evacuation (read: calling his mum and asking her to book him a flight). But you instinctively know that the hard-drinking expatriate community will still be fearlessly braving the city’s finest watering holes and that’s where you need to be. Like the band on the Titanic, you’d rather go down with the crew, valiantly so, doing what you love: drinking booze, talking shit, telling the staff to change the music (“Manu Chao, again?”). You kick start your bike and ride directly to Le Maquis, where the beers go down oh-so swiftly and oh-so sweetly. When some twenty-a-day smoker (yes, a Frenchman) coughs up half a lung everyone laughs. “Barkeep, how about a free whisky for anyone with SARS?” you roar. Camaraderie blossoms in the bar. Spurious anecdotes are shared. Rumours spread. Someone asks: What would happen if this disease can’t be contained? “From what I hear it’s no longer an ‘if’ but a ‘when’,” says one humourless fear-monger. “Look, pandemics sporadically ravage civilisation,” you declare with glee. “This thing could wipe out thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions within weeks.” A slightly manic Swiss German expat with a hairdo worthy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is with you all the way. You couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect accomplice to successfully put the fear of God into everyone. The man backs you up with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pandemics: “In 1918 the Spanish flu killed approximately 5 per cent of the world’s population,” he informs the bar. “But that was nothing compared to the Black Death which wiped out about half of Europe’s total population in the 14th century. Today with air travel shrinking the globe to unprecedented levels, who knows how quickly this thing can spread around the world…” You tag back in to add the finishing touches to the apocalyptic scenery everyone is picturing: “People will be literally dropping like flies all over the city. It’ll be like that Monty Python bubonic plague scene: street cleaners will be clanking their shovels against their dumpsters as they trundle down each and every alleyway, only they’ll be shouting in Vietnamese ‘bring out your dead!’” The Swiss-German translates instantly: “Mang ra người chết đi!”, “Chinhxacly right!” you shout. You suggest that everyone switches to whisky and everyone agrees. It ends up being a very late night. By the end, you must have smoked a pack and a half of Vinataba — the local’s preferred lung-shredding-cigarette-brand — and drunk the guts of a bottle of Jameson on top of who-knows-how-many-beers. Sometime between sunrise and midday, you wake up feeling like … well, probably how someone who is dying from SARS feels. You walk out the front door in the hope of some health-emitting sunshine falling on your face and somehow vaporising the horror that lies within. You see where there was an indicator on the side of your motorbike, there is now no indicator on the side of your motorbike, which means, yes, you did ride home — no helmet, hardly any brakes, howling at the moon drunk — dropping and/or crashing the bike somewhere along the way. You return inside, turn on your computer and dial up the internet. There’s another email from your father. It begins: “Just checking in to see if everything is okay…” As you know only too well, he tends to worry but usually about the wrong things.