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Malachi O'Doherty

What we need is the horror made plain... the global disaster we read about in sci-fi has finally happened

Malachi O'Doherty

Just because the sun is shining doesn't make Covid-19 outbreak any less of a catastrophe


Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock


Matt Hancock

We have all been prepared by movies, comics and books to imagine calamity and it didn't look like this. We have been conditioned to expect that when a global horror descended the sky would darken, a toxic miasma would seep through the streets and alleys and we would hear weeping in the night.

Instead, the sun is shining. It is spring and there are children playing gleefully in the park. The flowers are out.

We have been prepared by fiction to imagine a world in which we would be confined to our homes, perhaps underground, communicating only by videophones, sharing our dread as the filth above, which destroys all nature, trickles down to us.

Instead, we are all on Zoom, talking over each other about what we had for dinner.

The elements and ingredients of the cataclysm which we have been relishing in fiction all our lives are there, apart from the aliens and zombies, but the mood is entirely not what we expected.

In fiction the world leader addresses the people sombrely. Death is all around us. There are mass graves on the edge of town and in the night, if you are lying fretfully awake, you may rise from your bed to see men in black clothes wheeling bodies through the streets, lifting up the carcasses of the homeless from the doorways of shut-down businesses.

Instead, the leader is a clown, a snake-oil salesman who threatens trade war with India if they don't give up tons of anti-malarial medicine that he has a hunch will work against the virus. It won't. Then, his next hunch is that we should inject disinfectant. That won't work either. He is an idiot.

Or he is another clown who prattles about taking it on the chin and having the courage to keep business going until someone explains that, unless the country is shut down, the health service will collapse. He has never shown that much concern for the health service before. Funny, isn't it?

The messages from the state that all fiction prepared us to expect were darker, but at least logical. We are not being barked at by an authority to stay off the street, but assured we can take exercise and go to the shops, not to get our hair cut, but to buy wine.

In the way that none of the science fiction writers of my youth anticipated the mobile phone, let alone predicted that we would use it mostly to take photographs of ourselves and send them to global networks, none of them predicted that when the next plague came our technologically superior civilisation wouldn't have enough face masks for nurses, that bus drivers would be among the first to die and that glamorous newsreaders would appear on screen with their hair getting a little curled and frayed at the ends.

Or that people would react as if this wasn't really all that bad after all.

Twenty thousand people dead in UK hospitals. Perhaps another 10,000 dead in care homes. The US losing more people to the virus in a month than it lost in Vietnam, and yet the notion that we should protect ourselves is treated by many still as a suggestion they may blithely ignore.

Those who rebel against the state's right to tell us to stay at home, or to walk six feet apart from each other, are not the ones we saw in fiction as rebels either.

In Fahrenheit 451 the threat is from crazed and murderous drivers. In other books and movies we imagine sickly and barbarous half-humans living in the sewers and crawling to the surface at night to flout all regulation and take what they want. Or it is mobs of looters.

Here it is the leisure cyclist who practically brushes past you on the footpath when there is a cycle lane on the road. S/he perhaps hasn't even heard the message.

It is the dog walker and the jogger, the young lads out for a dander who don't move out of your way and sneer at you if you walk onto the road to avoid them.

It is even the young professional and the farmer, asserting a civil right, or the defence of the constitution, insisting even as the body count mounts that it is all a hoax.

Others, of course, smile and say thank you for the civility of avoiding them. But not everybody does that.

Some say by their demeanour that they think you are a bit soft in the head to be taking this all so seriously, that you look like a twit with a scarf wrapped round your bake on a lovely day like this.

Perhaps the people who are advising us need to take more account of the failure of so many to grasp how fundamentally our world has changed now that resolve is slackening

Perhaps it is not news to them that we are so vulnerable; it is the condition they live with.

I was a teenager when the discovery was announced that smoking caused lung cancer and made my first efforts then to give it up.

Some friends would laugh at me for that. "Sure, if the fag doesn't kill you, something else will." It's a fatalistic rationale rather than a reason, but it was commonly said.

You can still be taken by surprise, by poverty, a road accident, cancer. So why bother? Why not play in the middle of the road then, on the railway tracks? Why not give the children guns? Some did.

The global catastrophe we imagined in sci-fi has arrived, the death toll is massive and the Doctor is not coming to save us

Perhaps the people who are advising us need to take more account of the failure of so many to grasp how fundamentally our world has changed now that resolve is slackening.

For now we have soft-spoken advice to stay indoors, sneeze into our elbows and wash our hands. We have Press briefings by ministers and advisers who waffle and reassure us.

Matt Hancock is particularly adept at shrugging off questions about personal protective equipment and care homes by sharing our concern and numbing us with his soporific tone. Whoever expected that to be a winning tactic?

What we need now is the horror made plain.

The global catastrophe we imagined in sci-fi has arrived, the death toll is massive and the Doctor is not coming to save us.

The streets are crawling with an invisible and venomous invader that can easily inveigle you into taking it home to breed in your father's lungs and suffocate him.

Why not put it as plainly as that to people, in a language they are already familiar with? Scare the bejasus out of them. Make them fear me as a possible carrier when they see me on the street and get out of my way.

Belfast Telegraph