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Monday, January 10, 2022

Rabies, Omicron, And ‘Oh, My God, Please Help Me’– Virus Hysteria

Bea Leavens was a housewife who had lived with her husband, Bill, and their three children in New Delhi a number of years ago.  She had moved there only reluctantly because images of the Black Hole of Calcutta had been imprinted on her - indelibly on the brain of a nubile and very innocent girl who had fallen for the adventurous scion of Philadelphia wealth, a man who had already travelled to the remotest parts of Africa who with Errol Flynn panache had proposed to her on the Staten island Ferry.  “Will you be mine?”, he said, kissing her in the sweet, salty breeze.

Image result for Images Black Hole of Calcutta. Size: 204 x 204. Source: www.metal-archives.com

Despite her love for Bill and wishing more than anything to be his consort in Eastern mystery and romance, she had been hesitant because India had always remained a horror of pestilence, poverty, heat, dust, and misery – a white man’s grave despite the more forgiving images of the raj, caparisoned elephants, India Gate, proper British clubs, and liveried servants.  “Are you sure it’s the right thing?”, she said.  “Is India really the right place to be?”.

Image result for images british raj governors on tour with elephants

“Of course, darling”, he said. “Absolutely”. He had dismissed his wife’s entreaties to travel by air - "Too many dismal airports", he said, referring to the early Pan Am flights that stopped from Europe in Athens, Teheran, Tel Aviv, and Kabul.  "Going by sea will be much more pleasant"; and so off they went on the Queen Victoria from Southampton to Bombay by way of Aden. 

 “See those Arab dhows” he said as they came into harbor, country craft plying between India and the Trucial States with gold, emissaries of the new economics. “We’re here”.

Bill had fashioned himself in a Victorian image – top hats, high tea, carriages, and long gowns – and despite the anti-establishment era of the Sixties he went out to India for its former grace, elegance, and romantic charm.  He would ride above the herd, the post-independence ethnic strife and communal rivalries, and the neo-socialist governments after Nehru; and take his chances with newly democratic India – the India of heat and dust, flimsy and faulty panchayats, penury, and disease so feared by his wife.

They installed themselves in a high-rise apartment building on Peddar Road, Mount Unique, Bombay, and from the terrace of their penthouse apartment they had a view of Malabar, the Gateway of India, and the Arabian Sea. 

“Ah”, Bill said, “This is the life”.  They joined the Breach Candy Club, the redoubt of British expatriates but generous to the social needs of other respectable castes, and were frequent guests at the Tallygunge Club, colonial and post-colonial India’s most desired social redoubt for the best English expatriates.

Image result for view of gateway of india sixties

All went well.  The servants – gardener, watchman,, cook, menial servant, laundryman, and nanny – were hired and deployed. The routine -  English breakfast, desultory work, proper lunch, tea, and light supper -  was noted on the calendar; and the life of the American sophisticated expatriate went along smoothly.

Bea, although smitten by her dashing husband and enticed by the Eastern heart of his adventure, was nevertheless concerned.  How was one to keep sane and free from the frequent, debilitating flux that afflicted all foreigners? Not only was she a prisoner to the four walls of her Mt. Unique apartment, but corrupted therein by the disease brought in by the cook from Crawford Market – viral and bacterial diseases on every leaf of lettuce, every potato, every pear imported from Rishikesh, and every tempting tomato from Ooty.

She instituted a strict no-fly zone.  All produce from the market had to be bathed in potassium permanganate, triple washed in industrial quality soap, scraped, peeled, and only then served.  No disease from the pestilential outside would be allowed in.  Despite rampant epidemiological Armageddon, her home would be safe.

Until the unexpected happened  - the cat of a fond neighbor, a couple from Ohio both working for Children International – was found to have rabies. At that time rabies was a death sentence – disorientation, delusions, fever, lock-jaw and final loss of bodily control and certain death – and extreme measures were taken to avoid infection.  There were feral packs of dogs everywhere, and even if one took the most extreme evasive measures, risk was high.

Image result for images rabid dog

The Leavens, although sharing a floor with  the rabid neighbors, had no contact with their pets; but memory being such a frail commodity (they might have brushed up against the irritating, ingratiating cat) and rabies being a fatal, incurable disease, they decided to subject themselves to the painful series of abdominal injections of a rabies anti-viral. No one in the Leavens family had been bitten by the rabid cat, nor even come close. But better to err on the side of caution. An act of total, panicked, irrationality.

Fast-forward to 2021, Arlington, Virginia where the Leavens had been living  for many years after their return from the East.  From the first days of COVID, Bea was on the front lines.  She triple masks, isolated and disinfected her mail, scrubbed her counters until her knuckles were red and raw, purified the air in her suburban split-level until it was within a micron of absolute purity, and hunkered down in her basement, fed only by take-out, isolated, afraid, and responsible.

Image result for image triple masked person

When Omicron arrived, she was nonplussed and unhinged.  Indian rabies had returned with a vengeance.  Even the slightest, most incidental and insignificant contact had to be treated as existential. 

She curtailed outside visits, disinvited friends for dinner, ate only take out or delivered ingredients, triple masked on her her early  morning walks, her only ventures outside her hermetically sealed redoubt, bastion of epidemiological purity.

Her husband, mindful of  her earlier Indian rabies panic, tolerated her remission.  She had never gotten over her embedded fear of  viral assault.  She had always been as worried about untoward intellectual aggression as she had been about disease; and so her boarding up the house against Omicron was not unexpected.

She listened to no reason – data were showing that Omicron was a relatively mild virus and  triple jabs protected against serious illness; masks were no more than signifiers of resistance to disease, never useful protectors; and life should not be interrupted by what at worst would be a mild hawking and sneezing episode,

She hunkered down as she had done in India – not even an incidental pass, a glancing, inadvertent, benign, contact could be dismissed.  She became a prisoner of exaggeration and weird, politically-fueled fear.

“Please”, she pleaded with her husband, “Please, please don’t go to Salty Dog”, a neighborhood oyster bar, great West Coast and Oregon items, a place as innocuous as could be with a triple-vaccinated, careful, progressive, communitarian clientele.

“You never know”, she said, ‘where they have been”. And while she was right -  Bobby Benson, a lover of top necks, Kumamotos and Wellfleets, had uncertain whereabouts; and while Hans Kroller, German linguist and translator of Tennessee Williams, a well-known multi-sexual San Francisco queen, could never be counted on for decorum or doing the right thing – Bill refused to be locked down.

Image result for images san francisco transgender queens

Bill never caught COVID but his wife did.  She figured that with his indifferent habits he was the vector; but he insisted that her timorousness had compromised her immune system (more and more peer-reviewed studies were linking stress with a weakening of immune responses).  In any case, given the incredible transmissibility of Omicron, just about everyone was being infected, had ‘flu-like’ symptoms, and went on with their lives.  

Not that Bill Leavens was vindicated, exactly – his devil-may-care lifestyle had its compromising dimensions – but that ‘The Sky Is Falling’ hysteria of his wife did no one any good at all.  Bunkers, lockdowns, quarantines, triple-masked panic was simply not called for.  Disease and death were givens for people of the Leavens’ age, so why get lathered up?

The French and Russian soldiers at the Battle of Borodino in the wars of 1812 had the right idea.  Conscripted or not, a heroic death on the battlefield was worth far more than an infected toe and a feverish death.  Life was worth living and let death meanwhile take the hind seat. 

Image result for images battle of borodino

The Leavens happily died of old age, toppling off their chaises lounges almost together on a Miami beach; and neither one prior to their demise ever referred to the pestilential times of COVID.  They had both survived it and in their ninety plus years that was saying something.

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