It’s the classic scene from the 1990s epidemic-cum-apocalypse movie — the public official on television maintaining that there’s nothing REALLY to worry about from “Disease X”; just as the contagion dramatically strikes-down the dishonest bureaucrat while the world watches on!
Panic now ensures as the populace suddenly realises that the Government experts who have been telling everyone that everything will be alright, have been lying all along… to save themselves from the panic that now ensues…
The seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak seemed to triple in recent days as world stock markets tumbled at the recognition that the epidemic was now officially out of control; 12 towns in Italy were placed in lockdown to control a previously-unknown outbreak; with hundreds locked in their hotel rooms in the Spanish resort island of Tenerife. Officially there are more than 81,000 cases of the disease with about 3000 dead in 42 countries; grim enough, but not the Black Plague.
As in all the great pandemic movies, there are also increasingly-creditable reports that the disease, officially known as COVID-19, may have originated in a Chinese Government testing laboratory near the fish market in Wuhan Province, where it first appeared.
But the most telling image of all was the unsettling television footage of Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, seemingly having trouble remaining conscious as he mopped his sweating brow while denying covering-up the scale of the country’s outbreak; hours later he himself was confirmed as one of the nation’s reported 95 cases.
We all love a good day-of-reckoning story, from War of the World when Martians invade earth; to Day of the Triffids involving walking killer plants running amuck on a meteor-blinded populace; to The Day After Tomorrow where our foolhardy inaction on global warming leads to a new ice age.
The story is almost always the same. Disaster looms — disease, alien invasion, nuclear war — with the general sloth-like ignorance and indifference of the population compounded by the self-serving and short-sighted lies and deception of our public officials. Cue death and societal mayhem… with a few resilient survivors picking-up the pieces as the sun rises on a new day for humankind.
During the Cold War, the ebbs and flows of tension between the two armed-to-the-teeth nuclear powers would be gleefully commemorated by tabloid newspapers regularly running sensationalist guides on “How to Survive a Nuclear War.” These cheering features included helpful maps showing the death-rate from a thermo-nuclear device radiating outwards in concentric rings from the centre of your nearest capital city.
It was good 1970s fun to try and locate your own suburb in the great metropolis and imagine the destruction detailed and how you might crawl through the rubble, surviving on rats in a world increasingly-peopled by irradiated mutants calling “Morgan, Morgan…” (apologies, The Last Man on Earth).
After all, what fun is there in a post-apocalyptic future without imagining yourself as one of the plucky survivors?
Fear of nuclear war between the United States and the USSR was said, however, to be a constant concern for children with psychologists supposedly treating hundreds of Australian young for so-called “Nucleomituphobia”.
After the 2016 election of Donald Trump as American President — in seeming nostalgia for the good-old-days — some sensationalist media began running almost-daily stories with the standing headline “World War III:” usually followed by some less-than terrifying report titled something like: “New Russian weapon untraceable by US radars”.
Having lived through most of the Cold War, I never personally felt that an outbreak of nuclear war was ever likely to destroy the world; or even Melbourne, for that matter.
But it is diverting to imagine — as one faces the daily regular grind of a modern, civilised, safe society — the idea of going man-to-man against mutated freaks led by a devious and amoral demagogue who is trying to extinguish the last licker of a civilised world.
One feature of these scenarios are the three archetypal characters, the monsters trying to destroy the world; the flawed hero; and the all-too-human survivors who are increasingly reliant on their damaged leader. Among the survivors is usually a treacherous Judas-like quisling only too-prepared to betray the survivors for some perceived reward.
But the one thing that is often understated in these battle-for-survival scenarios is the reality of the day-to-day struggle of the survivors to keep going on, eking-out a living among the rubble and ruin and death and grief.
While most individuals in these novels and movies show a phlegmatic stiff upper lip towards tragedy, I’m not so sure if that would be the modern response.
“What do you mean I can’t get mobile coverage? That’s just not good enough!” one imagines our unhappy Millennial character blaring.
“I’m not eating that; I’m vegan, what have you got in tofu?” another asks when offered a half-cooked dog’s thigh bone as an honoured guest.
“You’ve got to be joking; is that instant coffee with UHT milk?” our third millennial asks incredulously when he rises for breakfast before the raid on the aliens. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to carry that?” he asks as the ambush team — lead-out by their ruggedly-capable leader — lug a motley collection of machine guns, RPGs, and sniper’s rifles.“I can’t look!” says the leader of the young female brigade as her ripped acrylic finger-nail is clipped off by the blood-stained medico. “When, when, is this ever going to end?”