It is a strange image to see people roaming the streets with their faces covered by masks to protect themselves from this mysterious and ominous influenza outbreak. It seems like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. In 28 Days Later one had to beware of contact with infectious blood; in our case, we are paranoid of each other, no matter if it's a friend or a stranger especially when they start sneezing or coughing. A common cold today equals ostracism in these troublesome days.
Whether the whole level of fuss and panic is really necessary remains to be seen in the near future. Yet that it poses a tangible threat for most of us, especially if you are living in Mexico, is evident in daily life. Schools all across the nation have been suspended for a week; public events, including soccer games, are either canceled or take place behind closed doors to avoid spread of the virus among multitudes of people. The whole country is on its way of turning into a ghost town soon enough.
Various works of cinema and literature come to mind. Although Camus' The Plague is an impressive work that deals with rapidly growing infections and a sense of fear and paranoia, but I think that the situation is rather different from the current outbreak. With the Black Death, people were infected from rats and started sneezing, which many say brought about our regular saying “God bless you,” meaning that only God can help you now that you are fading away.
However, in this particular case, I am more reminded of the absurd theater of Ionesco and his famous play called Rhinoceros. In that work, people start changing, without reason or explanation, into rhinoceroses. Pretty soon most of the town has lost their humanity and is simply rushing from place to place in their rhino shape.
This seems to me more apt to describe the current situation. We are afraid. As simple as that. We know that despite all the technology and medicine, we are still vulnerable, that mankind will never completely shed its Achilles heel. They say that it is time for the next pandemic that will wipe out most of us. It is not a question of if or whether but rather when.
Of course, one option would be to live in constant fear. Terrorism had caught most of our attention, and now all of a sudden it is the swine flu that is making headlines. Swine? Yes, it sounds as absurd as the rhinoceros play. And one can complicate matters and say that Twelve Monkeys exemplifies a testament for the next global bio-terrorist attack. It can happen, and it is not as far-fetched or science fiction as we would like to think.
But I believe we should take a deep breath and decide to adapt to the changing circumstances. We have to recall that we are indeed vulnerable and that nothing is really safe. We are dangling on a tightrope without a safety net, or maybe the tightrope is spread on the ground and we are meant to stumble, as Kafka once put it.
Or we are thrown into the world that contains wonderful and horrible things in equal measure. We can panic or we can embrace our strengths and weaknesses and brace for what is coming ahead and hope, in its true medieval sense, that “God will bless us.”