Last night was my first outing with friends since January 24 2020. That was the day Covid-19 arrived in Australia. I gotta say I was scared. Covid changed me, and for that, I was livid. Livid about the virus, I suppose. Livid about Covid. Those who know me know I can’t be easily changed. “Stubborn as a mule!” “You’re so annoying!” “You’re behaving like an old fart!” “Do you ever listen to yourself? You’re so ridiculous!” “So fixed like an old tree – be more flexible!” All these hurtful words have been hurled at me at one time or another. The stubborn bit – many times! Yet, this little bugger that our eyes cannot see has changed me. I was afraid last night. It was foreign for me to feel tense. The foreboding, the uncertainty. Worryingly, I felt awkward amongst my friends. Little Sis was there too with her hubby. The Mrs sat next to her. I wondered if they felt the trepidation rising in me. I felt like screaming. I almost raised my voice, wanting to ask Chip, who was next to me if he had any Ativan on him. Kalma, Xanax? Anything to calm me down. I asked for a beer instead. That was the first time in my life, I felt anxiety. It agitated my senses. It disrupted my peace. It was a mild panic attack, I suppose. Now, I know how it feels. A long time ago, The Mrs had one. In the middle of my deep sleep. She brought me back to reality with a loud shriek for help and a brutish slap on my arm. She demanded to be taken to the hospital, so real was her fear of dying. Her reality was of course not real. It was just chemicals in her brain that made her panic. Last night, I almost froze as well. It was a warm and very muggy night, after a scorching afternoon. My mind was travelling at a crazy speed, in all directions. Everything was a blur, the messages I formed mentally did not make sense. The idle chit-chat at my table was just a murmur. Did the old men stutter? Or did they mutter amongst themselves at things inconsequential? I abruptly stood up, with the sole intention of leaving. Sitting down placidly and amicably was not an option. Chip looked up with a frown. I did not respond to his enquiring eyebrow. Little Sis’s hubby ignored me, as he always does. It was a sweet moment to cherish, to be ignored at such a time. But, Chip would not let me off. “Hey, this isn’t a Xaverian thing to do”, he chided me. Chip and I are from the same school, St. Xavier’s in Penang. The other two old men in front of me were schoolmates from our rival school, Penang Free School (PFS). Chip sounded apologetic on my behalf. We Xaverians have no need to apologise for our table manners, but my telepathic message failed to be delivered. Chip was at his best, and he smoothed things over with the PFS boys. He asked if I was looking for the “men’s room”. Chip is always the civil one. I call a toilet a toilet. Sometimes, I call it chesuo or mao-fang (Thatched room in Mandarin). There is no need to call it a men’s room – why be gender-specific? I wanted desperately to cancel the dinner. The only thing in my mind was to find a way to storm out of the place. “Just leave! Now!” I screamed at myself. Instead, I intuitively pulled out my phone and pretended to take a few shots of my mates. “This will make our friends in Malaysia jealous”, I said out loud. These Malaysian friends are under another prolonged lockdown. What they call MCO 2.0. Weird, isn’t it? What’s the point about the decimal point? Will there be a MCO 2.1 or MCO 2.0(a) for instance? I wanted to leave right there and then. But, I couldn’t. My feet were firmly planted on the sticky floor, as if glued by chewing gum. The Mrs and I had “lompang” our way to the party. Save the environment, reduce our carbon footprint. We caught a ride with Little Sis instead. Without my own car, I felt stranded. I couldn’t leave. Even though the place scared me. It didn’t scare me on the way in. In fact, I marvelled at how much the complex had transformed. Tea Tree Plaza was a prison to me. I had a shop there from 1991 to 2013. Before last night, I had not returned to it. Why would I? 22 years being imprisoned in a small space. All 96 sq. metres of it was crammed with auto parts and accessories. After 22 years in a shop without windows and sunlight, you would expect the air to become putrid. It was. Years of obnoxious smells, made up of a lethal combination of foul farts, stinky odours of fuel additives and engine oils, and vile vapours from chemically tanned sheepskin car seat covers. I did not go into the mall to visit the location of my old shop. Let bygones be bygones. Instead, I walked briskly to the new section, an alfresco entertainment area for restaurants and bars. Marvellous to see! It reminded me of Singapore, the warm night and the expensive-looking surroundings. Very chic, I thought. Little Sis led us into the Thai restaurant, and my hands immediately turned clammy. It was the crowd. The room was packed with diners loudly gesticulating, laughing or talking over one another. The noise. It scared me. I did not like that crowded place. People were greeting one another, hugging, kissing, cheek to cheek. All that had become foreign to me. All that flooded my mind. They have forgotten about COVID-19! If the pandemic had taught me anything, it was that the world had changed forever. We have all become much more hygienic, newly alert to how bacteria and viruses contaminate our surroundings. Fist bumps or elbow bumps are the new handshakes, yet I could not see that being practised at all. We were handed thick dog-eared plastic menu folders that were bigger than A4 size. A big choice of Thai food, how exciting. But, they looked a bit greasy to me – a strong hint of being well used like old books in a library. I refused mine. The old world beckoned, the pre-Covid world. The internal bells in my head rang as if there was a busy wedding. Noisily and incessantly. So, I rejected the idea of holding the menu and thumbing through the pages that others before me had. But, the whole idea of breathing in the crowd’s combined breath was unsettling. That was when I panicked. How do I avoid the droplets and vapours from their dirty breaths? Look at them. Guffawing and cackling away, without a thought or a worry about a loitering virus. Listen to their shouting and loud conversations. Why must urghhlings talk over one another? Are they not aware that they end up shouting at each other? The bigger the volume, the bigger the droplets and the stronger they propel to all directions. Feeling trapped, I did not want to be there. I have already got accustomed to the new world. A world of fresh air and clean surroundings. One that is occupied by very few people, free of noise pollution and stinky smells. And, no virulent virus. A new world that feels safe. Peaceful. Clean. But, last night that new world collapsed. I was livid. Why did we risk our well-being? For some Thai food that tasted too sweet? That extra input of sugar into my body was unpleasant. The thought of exposing ourselves to Covid unnecessarily? Crazy!
Many countries around the world are still in strict lockdown. The virus has mutated to become much more virulent. Let us hope these variants won’t become more deadly. There has been so much suffering, so many deaths. So many unnecessary suffering and deaths. That is my point. Just this week, the U.S. finally mandated mask-wearing on federal property and on public transport and in airports. Finally! After one year into the pandemic. After 410,000 deaths. Just two nights ago, Germany finally mandated medical-grade masks, i.e. single-use 3-ply surgical masks or FFP-2 masks. Finally, they realise that many cloth masks do not guarantee against Covid – the single layer or poor design or both do not afford adequate protection. Why have so many nations coped so poorly with Covid? Why have the authorities not learn sooner from successful examples? Both China and Taiwan have done remarkably well to fight Covid. Many will disbelieve China, distrusting any announcements from the CCP as mere propaganda. So, I will look at Taiwan’s success instead and ask the West why their governments have not adopted relatively simple yet effective measures? Taiwan is similar in size to Florida, a U.S. state with a comparable population of about 25 million. So far, Taiwan has recorded 870 cases and 7 deaths whereas the American state has recorded 1.6 million cases and 25,000 deaths. Get this, 7 vs 25,000. A numbing comparison. This week, Taiwan cancelled a Chinese New Year festival after it confirmed 4 new Covid cases. FOUR! A single digit record would be a reason for a huge celebration anywhere else in the world, but for Taiwan, this has to be taken very seriously. To fight this virus effectively, we need to enforce mandatory quarantines for those coming into our country; and when there are positive cases in the community, insist on universal mask wearing and social distancing, and prompt contact tracing of confirmed cases. You do that and you will avoid the costly and draconian lockdowns. 7 vs 25,000. That is the stark reality. Too many unnecessary deaths. Such a waste of lives. Reducing lives to mere numbers is clinical and cold. These were living, breathing human beings. They once had dreams and goals. They loved and were loved. Some were their family’s pillar of strength, their purpose in life being to provide for their loved ones – they turned up for work and nothing else distracted them. Some were frontline health workers and contact tracers, the real unsung heroes whose names were unheralded and whose work were unrecognised or forgotten. Now they are gone. Sacrificed. Why? It can’t simply be the excuse that leaders didn’t accept the science or played politics to enhance their re-election prospects. What about the medical experts, cabinet ministers and law-makers behind these fools? Those sycophants and weak medical experts who misrepresented the science yet were put or left in charge of public health have to be answerable for being derelict in their duty to protect lives. It is true that some of the medical experts had their lives and those of their families threatened to make them toe the official line – that it happened to strong democratic countries in the West points to a deep and dark systematic attempt to silence the experts. Why would politicians think politics know better than science when it comes to handling a pandemic? As for those who promulgated conspiracy theories that Covid is mere bullshit to control the masses, they should be hauled to face the courts and answer to charges against humanity. What about the political leaders who failed to exercise their most basic duty, i.e. to look after the health and safety of their citizens? And those violent protesters who stormed public places to voice their personal rights against mask-wearing? These urghhlings should be denied hospital beds and medical care should they succumb to the virus they believed to be fake. I take the view that if you do not believe the virus is real, then you do not need to be treated for it. I am livid that the system will give these reckless and irresponsible people priority over the law-abiding ones or the weak and voiceless. I am livid that Covid has failed to take away the privileges of those guilty of spreading it.