In early February after I travelled to one of the coldest places in the Philippines where even the vegetables were frosting at freezing temperatures, I developed a slight fever as I went back to work. It was an ordinary thing until I was reminded that the world is in a crisis mode brought by the novel coronavirus that is causing illness and death worldwide.
The news that the Philippines has just reported its first case alarmed our group as we were travelling down the mountain roads back to the city. The next pieces of news took a natural course the way of disease outbreaks because a second person who tested positive died, and the number of people under observation continued to increase.
Country after country reported theirs. China, site of the pandemic epicenter, has locked down and quarantined its affected areas. Photos from around the world showed medical professionals in full hospital and laboratory gear and seas of people wearing protective face masks.
In the Philippines, the face masks have run out from drugstores since January after Taal Volcano, one of the country’s active volcanoes, erupted, causing a hazy and ashfall-heavy air.
So on a brief travel from Yangon to Bangkok in mid-January, I hoarded all kinds of face masks from Bangkok’s 7-11 stores and gave away a few to family and friends for some form of protection. I’m not really a hoarder as I have been using face masks since five years ago as protection from pollution, from riding congested transport such as the metrorail, and prevention of rhinitis attack.
The volcano and the virus provided a startling beginning of the year. But that was not yet it. As the volcanic alert level stayed and the death toll and case count from the virus continues, a few more countries report the death of pigs from African swine flu, a spillover from the 2019 outbreak that has affected food production and supply. Others report outbreaks of the reemerging H5N8 bird flu virus.
It is an unsettling experience that has creeped into conversations with friends, some of whom say that we may be in a prelude to the end of the world. When we see the casualty count rise each time we read the updates, or when specific news say people are dropping dead one by one, the notion may be true.
So as schools and workplaces close and shut down, we are also locked down. We are all under quarantine. The activities that filled my planner this early have all been cancelled or postponed. This can go on until the world stands still. Add to this the humanitarian emergencies from political conflicts devastating other countries.
But is this how humanity will go? I would say that for people like me who think of the end of the world then go on working on what I had to finish for the day, it’s premature to say. But then, who can say what’s next?
There were wonderful things that happened, such as Filipinos mobilizing their friends and communities to help displaced residents around the volcano, providing free food and clothes. Or Chinese families under quarantine shouting from their windows to stay strong because that is all they can do. And the world collectively empathizing with them.
So I will pretend to be a prophet: I doubt if the world would end. Not when humans, who have waged wars and violence on each other, are starting to regain their humanity. But if it does, I wish it will be a peaceful one, fading out with blue skies and sunshine maybe, not with volcanoes darkening the sky or virulent viruses killing us all.