Pandemic Update: The Viral Fire

Photo by raquel raclette on Unsplash

Viruses are a force of nature and in a pandemic collectively become an invisible storm, or blizzard, or a forest fire.

Timing is everything. Be attentive. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, the plywood Smokey the Bear reminds every visitor to every national park in America. Fire danger today: the needle goes from white to green to yellow to red. A forest ranger must move the needle each morning to match conditions. Wind. Drought. Heat. Storms and strikes.

Fire in itself is not dangerous, if properly controlled and managed. A virus, one virus, one patient even, is like a match. It is possible to isolate and snuff it out. But what happens when a match is tossed still glowing into the bed of pine needles at a campground, when a cigarette is flicked from an open window in a moving car, when lightning strikes? The spark finds just the right conditions to kindle. Flames erupt. Perhaps the fire is located in a remote locale that people struggle to imagine, and so it seems ephemeral. Unimportant. Unreal. But the fire spreads and grows, roars and burns, and the fire line marches to houses and towns, turning everything in its path to char and ash, cinders and dust. If only the fire had been stamped out at the start, there wouldn’t be more than four million acres fought and lost and burned as happened in California last year.

Covid sparked. The flames fanned. No one wanted to stop moving, doing, living their lives. Many people could not stop moving, doing, living their lives, because their survival depended on it.

We’d seen the news from China, but in my lifetime alone we’d also seen Legionnaire’s Disease, AIDS, mad cow, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu. Surely this fire wasn’t faster moving? Surely the actions the Chinese government was taking would manage this problem for the world? Those Chinese citizens being welded into their apartments to prevent their free movement in Wuhan, that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Wet markets. Population density. Could it really spread?

Last year in Italy the spark caught in Lodi, in Codogno, small towns in the wealthy north of Italy. The regions of Lombardy and Piedmont suffered tremendously. Bergamo and Brescia. Lines of hearses and army vehicles deep into the night, every night, into every next morning, for weeks. The crematoria couldn’t handle the onslaught. The forest fire had taken hold. It burned so deeply, so stubbornly. The fire was tucked into every old tree and thicket of underbrush, and it took out the older wood, the driest wood, the kindling, with a vengeance. The fire didn’t care. The fire was hungry.

Could it really spread? This was a naive question. Of course a fire can spread. We were just starting to understand a year ago how virulent the spark was. How once it took root, community spread was a fire impossible to put out. It was everywhere. It was invisible. Do people doubt that fire exists, how it burns fuel that disappears almost without a trace? I found it hard to understand the collective global doubt about the impending crisis when the signs, the evidence, were everywhere. How could people doubt an unfolding event whose evidence was everywhere?

I still don’t understand it. Yet ignorance, either willful or congenital, was marked to bring us into some very dark days indeed in 2020.

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