Dragon City Journal features contemporary cultural essays & graphics, on a variety of subjects, but mostly dealing with politics and government, film, cities and urban life, religion and metaphysics, and travel. It is a monthly or bi-monthly publication. There are also occasional book and film reviews as well as some fictional pieces. “Subscribers” are notified by email of the posting of new essays, and are encouraged to add comments express their thoughts and opinions.
It is ironic that in the Martian invasion that took place in the original War of the Worlds scenario the invaders were vanquished by a human virus-like the coronavirus common cold. Yup, we sneezed those nasty bastards off our planet. No, it wasn’t atomic weapons, heroes flying fighter jets and yelling “Yee-hah!” as their missiles exploded alien spacecraft, or makeshift EMP devices (as in the techno deus ex machina of the sci-fi I watched last night employed) that rendered alien invaders and technology helpless. Our imaginary stable, peaceful, divinely created society is always being invaded and threatened by menacing forces bent upon eradicating our species and taking over our real estate. It’s a good distraction from the historical fact that our species is pretty much its own worst enemy. But like longtime practitioners of Trumpian distraction, we conjure critters, macro, and micro, from inner and outer space, or just immigrants and foreigners from abroad, as malevolent adversaries. But, every once in a while we are reminded that it is something in our own nature that is the substance of that dark fear that haunts us––that like those sneaky little viruses, we are players in the infinitesimal battlefields of worlds large and small for our survival–our most basic Darwinian instinct, and that time, the long and the short of it, it is a war we are destined to lose. Our little allies from that Wellsian War of the Worlds have more often turned on us with a mindless, cold-blooded, furious survival of the fittest. And this protean Covid–19 bastard might be more adept at changing its homicidal arsenal than we have the capacity to respond.
I hold with Heraclitus that we cannot step into the same river twice. But the question that teases us in a time of pandemic and its enforced isolation and reflection, is what “new normal” awaits us. Some pundits opine that we will never be the same; others have it that we will reflexively return to thinking we are God’s gift to the universe, or more likely, that the universe is God’s gift to us. But I tend to split the difference on this one. I think we do not step into the same river twice. But in so doing, we remember that rivers can be cold and swift and that our very stepping in them alters their flow. It is a reminder of this reciprocity with nature that we must respect. Next time we may choose not to step at all.
But enough of metaphor (for the moment). What do those inclined to metaphysical explanations consider in these silent moments of quarantine? If “everything happens for a reason” what (and whose?) reasons account for microbial pandemics? There is always that good old Biblical fallback that pandemics are some divine smacking of our naughty backsides for worshiping the false gods of consumerism, celebrity, or even the abandonment of proper stewardship of our planetary residence. (Surely it is not for our lack of humanistic amity since each of our deities has their client base to consider.) But God’s little microbial tool seems to have little capacity or concern for a distinction between the deserving and undeserving. In that respect, it hardly differs from any other apportionment of divine blessings and curses. So, despite the fact that I concur with the notion that mankind deserves a good smack on the ass, I am disinclined to hang this one on the good ole Sky Fairy, if only for the fact that one can pick up a case of coronavirus in your church, mosque, or synagogue as easily as you can at your bar, gym, or nail salon. Frankly, I don’t think God gives a goddamn. It is only a us who obsess that there must be a reason for things to happen.
At least with those extraterrestrial invaders, we had a notion of what they might have wanted. But with these little shapeshifting microbial motherfuckers we haven’t a clue. Maybe that’s what we need to find out if we are to be victorious in this war of the worlds.
ICUs (Immigrant Care Units)
The face mask and the plastic face shield do not obscure the fact that the nurse speaking with and anxious voice into the camera, as an occupied gurney festooned with dangling bottles and bags of the infusions is rapidly pushed through the corridor behind, is a young Nigerian-American immigrant. She explains that she is exhausted by extended shifts, not getting enough sleep, and trying to make do with limited safety resources. She’s explaining, not bitching, and it is not lost on me that underneath that protective she is wearing a hijab.I’m eating my dinner and watching her on TV. I feel a pang of guilt at having bemoaned my minor inconveniences.
The doctor being interviewed has an ID badge with the name that twists the tongue of the interviewer. The name fits the tawny face that is from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. He’s an ER doc, and he looks knackered-out, too. But the doctor who was interviewed yesterday was a virologist from Singapore.
Add to the dramatis personae of the front-line medical responders to the virus in the beleaguered hospitals of America’s major urban centers plays out there is the undocumented Hispanic EMT driver and the Haitian technician.
Lift up almost any N95 mask in these medical facilities and you will reveal and Ellis Island’s worth of American immigrants. Yup, these dark complexions and brown eyes are the faces that Trump and his battalions of bigots insist are taking American jobs. And but you don’t see a lot of White faces rushing into man those ER’s and ICU wards, putting their lives in danger to medicate and intubate bodies of any race or ethnicity. These are the people of Trump wants us to blame for our problems when, in fact, we would be in a far worse raging shit-storm of trouble were it not for the selfless heroes.
Right now, the only disease that rivals Covid-19 in this country is that good all Americans standby, hypocrisy. It is not those swastika-tattooed, confederate flag-waving, AR-15-brandishing assholes storming the statehouses that Trump cynically plays like political chess pieces, who have even an iota of the courage and compassion of these selfless immigrants. It should not take a pandemic to rip the veneer off our false democracy and egalitarian society and perhaps restore it to some semblance of its better days, but if it does, there might be some good blown in with this pandemic wind.
Think about it for a second: a pandemic would be a good time to get away with murder. Back in the bubonic plague days of the 15th-century, a time when bodies were just tossed out of windows to be carted off to mass burial places there wasn’t any diligent forensic work being done to discernment cause of death. Pandemics are definitely a distraction from the normal processes of life, and death and dispose of that person you are quarantined with who has flatulencia extremis.
I’m not suggesting hear that you just might want to get rid of somebody under the cover of Covid-19 (so put down that steak knife). No, this is just a catchy lead to my topic of the day, which is that it does seem that our morally challenged president and his lackeys at the DOJ and on his McConnell packed courts are taking advantage of the diversion of the current plague to spring some of his scumbags.
General Ryan has been avoiding sentencing and jail time for a couple of years now. So, under the cover of the pandemic, he has the balls to actually retract his own two guilty pleas, and attorney general Bill Barr removed his lips long enough from Trump’s ass to declare that he was dropping the case entirely, so we should forget that the good general never conspired with the Rooskies and lied about it to the FBI.
And then there was Paul Manafort, with his stock “I’ve just been caught masturbating” look on his face, prancing out of jail to serve the remainder of his all too short sentence in the comfort of his home. So, you don’t want to be standing in front of the jailhouse door and risk being run down by Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, or Michael Cohen in a Republican pandemic scumbag jailbreak.
Current Journal Post
The novel coronavirus has provided me with the time and recommended social isolation to return to a subject that has interested me from my boyhood days. Call me wacky, weird, or wonderful, but I have always been interested in the plague. I was a young boy when I read The Decameron, Defoe, and even chunks of Pepys’ diaries of London in 1666, to feed my curiosity about the bubonic/pneumonic plague. I think it might be that I was also intrigued with rats, which, as we know, carry fleas that kills them and can infect humans with bubonic plague.*
Plague or zoonosis caused by various bacilli and viruses may owe much to the proximity and relationships between people and animals. The emergence of these bugs and pesky immune system butt-kickers just might be Nature’s way of admonishing us for overtaking too much of other species’ habitat and exploiting them as a food source. And when it comes to our suspicions about unidentified flying objects we may have more to fear from a sneeze of pneumonic droplets than an aerial insurgency of great critters fascinated with our genitalia. In the constant battle between our medical ingenuity and the souped-up Darwinian mutational gymnastics of microscopic monsters we received periodic reminders that we might not be the most adaptive life form, or not meek enough to qualify as inheritors of the Earth. If war is the appropriate metaphor, these microbes are the Taliban of our immune systems.
One of the many curious practices that struck me during the couple of years I spent in Hong Kong was that there were two different medical systems operating side by side. Chinese medicine, with its “humors,” acupuncture, reflexology, and pharmacological recipes that can resemble garden sweepings and taste like compost, continues to service the medical needs mostly of the Chinese residents, with some brave gweilo patients who are regarded as a homeopathic alternative. Second is Western medicine of the sort familiar to us, with modern hospitals, advanced diagnoses and treatments, is also to be found in facilities such as Queen Mary’s Hospital.
But modern medical practice in Hong Kong has one significant difference from that we would recognize. Physicians not only write prescriptions, they also act as the pharmacies that dispense and sell drugs. It is not too difficult to discern the potential for abuse in this arrangement. Mrs. Wang’s illness might not really indicate an Rx for an expensive antibiotic, but the doctor is also in the business of selling drugs.
One particular abuse of this system is exactly that—the over-prescription of antibiotics in Hong Kong. Antibiotics are commonly prescribed, for example, for common colds and sniffles, for which they are virtually useless because colds are viruses. In fact, the practice is “bad medicine” because there is now a concern that Hong Kong residents may be all but immune to antibiotics and, should a bacterial infection get hold of their compromised immune systems, there might be no effective defense.
Add to this that Southern China has long been an incubator for new viruses. Many poor farmers live with their livestock, the Chinese have a taste for exotic animals, and there are extremely high densities of population that exacerbate transmission. Little wonder that we call the viruses generated there the “Asian Flu,” or “Hong Kong Flu.” More recently, SARS was nearly one of its exports.
The current plague is viral, but revisiting the outbreak of bubonic plague, which gave the disease the discovery of its cause and the name of its discoverer, is worth a look back.
Edward Marriott’s Plague (2002) centers on a bubonic plague outbreak in Hong Kong in 1894. Bubonic plague is a bacillus, so there was the prospect of hunting it down through microscopy and finding a cure or vaccine if its etiology could be discovered. Amazingly, the rat flea was still not identified as the culprit at this late date. Plague has been around since rats and has had many outbreaks and much has been written about them. But what makes this account interesting is the rivalry between two epidemiological researchers, Alexandre Yersin, a reserved, humble Frenchman, and Kitasato Shibasaburo, a renowned and egotistical Japanese.
What was known was that plague was usually presaged by the appearance of dead rats. Hong Kong was producing a lot of rodents in 1894, especially in a section of town called Tai Ping Shan, a squalid section of filthy, crowded tenements along a steep slope. Soon after, when the rats were all dead and their fleas needed something else to bite, people started showing the characteristic “buboes,” high fevers, and then horrible deaths and the black tongues that gave the disease its name of “The Black Death” in the 14th century. Bubonic can mutate into pneumonic plague, a communicable, and hence more virulent by-product.
In Marriott’s stirring account there are also the ubiquitous scourges of bigotry, politics, and racism at play in Hong Kong. Kitasato was warmly welcomed by the British medical authorities (this was nearly fifty years before the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, and the Japanese were highly regarded). Yersin, however, was French; enough said. The British medical officer stonewalled him at every turn. Yet Yersin was the only one who apparently had any real concern for the health of the Chinese (the British abused Chinese patients, at one point, sequestering them in a filthy derelict ship in the harbor). He had done research in Burma, where he learned the language.
Nevertheless, it was Yersin, doing research almost entirely on his own (he even had to steal cadavers because the British would not release them to him) who isolated the bacillus. Kitasato, with his large staff, access to cadavers, and a large laboratory in the west end of Hong Kong called Kennedy Town, claimed to have first discovered the bug, but it turned out he had jumped the gun so he could submit his findings to a medical journal and add to his renown (the journal later had to print a retraction). Yersin developed a vaccine, but it did not prove very successful. Nevertheless, Yersin received the dubious honor of having one of the deadliest communicable diseases named after him.
Plague continues to be an interesting subject for me because—again, metaphorically, like war—it exposes the best and worst in the behavior of our species. Pathogenic microbes have been around since the beginning of life on earth and, as we have evolved, they have found ways of doing so right along with us. The place they have caused are referenced in the earliest literature, called down upon us by divine powers from those in the Old Testament to Homer in The Iliad, to scourge the Byzantine Christians, and probably wiping out remote populations that we never got to hear about. Like the bubonic plague, most of their victims never got to figure out what it was that was killing them and probably, there were religious and/or political leaders, like Donald Trump in his inclination to blame the Chinese, who have exploited plagues for political purposes. Indeed, biologists warn us today that the defrosting permafrost of the earth Mike released all sorts of new pathogens as “punishment” for cooking the planet. One can only speculate on the possibilities of the global infections acting as a detonator causus belli in an international competition for diminished resources.**
Today there are still outbreaks of Yersinia pestis, even in the USA, but mostly in the Third World. Contemporary antibiotics are capable of controlling the disease if one has not developed an immunity to effective prescriptions.
I have read other works on bubonic plague, notably Defoe (A Journal of the Plague Year), and Zinser (Rats, Lice and History), but this book came closer to home for me—at least the home I had in Hong Kong in 2000-2001. It turns out that Tai Ping Shan Street (Big Peace Mountain Street) is still there, about four blocks from the apartment I rented. In fact, I had often walked through it on my way to the nearby Man Mo Temple and the antique shops in the vicinity. In addition to not getting juiced up on antibiotics by Hong Kong doctors, I kept a sharp eye for any dead rats.
©2005,2020, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.18.2020)
*They are also quite fascinating creatures that are more like us than you might care to admit. See, https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates.
**Beware, this date, Donald Trump has declared himself a “war president” against what he refers to as “the Chinese virus,” despite the risk to his bone-spur.
See also: http://dragoncityjournal.com/posts/vol-27-5-the-demon-in-the-freezer-by-richard-preston-br/