A Mortal’s Portal

Death has been occupying my mind lately. It is macabre to dwell on it, I know. It cannot be good for my well-being, that I know too. But, I can’t help it. Death is everywhere and is reported with vigour in the news a lot. Friends even share it with some enthusiasm, I detect. Yes, I am referring to the daily statistics about COVID-19. For me, it is not just the numbers. There are those who use the numbers to quell fear. They assure us not to worry about it, the mortality rate is only 3.4%. No under 9-year-olds have died from the virus! As if that will soothe my worries. The WHO reported that those in my age group have a mortality rate of 3.6%. Why worry, right? For the 70-79 age group, it jumps to 8%, and for those over 80 years old, it is a whopping 14.8%. But, I remind myself the life expectancy around the world is about 80 years anyway. So, it is less troubling to know 14.8% of those infected with the virus will die if they are over 80 years of age. Trump goes even further to dampen the worries of his citizens. He tells them the mortality rate is false. For once, I think he’s right, for I have been harbouring the same suspicion. The mortality rate is very much higher in the US. Why? It is easy to conclude that they have not been counting the cases of infections correctly. The number of deaths is easy to determine. If you’re dead, you’re dead. But, if you’re infected with COVID-19, you may be unaware of it for more than 14 days, or worse, you may be asymptomatic and are one of the silent carriers. The number of infections is likely to be under-reported and for sure then, the mortality rate is exaggerated. Especially in the US where the mortality rate is over 6.5%. As of yesterday, they reported 14 deaths from 213 cases. South Korea, which has the second highest number of cases outside of China, has a mortality rate that is one-tenth of that. Out of 6,593 cases, 42 people have died, i.e. a rate of 0.6%. The situation is much worse in the US where they do not even have enough testing kits to distribute to potential epicentres. They have tested only 2,000 people instead of the hundreds of thousands in South Korea. Some states do not even have labs to process such tests. Wyoming, Oklahoma, Ohio, West Virginia and Maine are still in the process of setting up labs, as are Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Unlike China which produces 1.5 million kits a week, the Americans are so underprepared despite four months’ warning of the spread of the disease. It was only yesterday that Trump signed off a USD8.3 billion package (four times the amount he initially asked for) to tackle this epidemic. But, whilst announcing it, he seemed to dismiss that it wasn’t necessary, “We are in great shape. ….we closed it down; we stopped it.” Although he denies it, he did imply that it was alright to go to work with the virus as many people with the flu do. His suggestion that the virus could boost their economy was met with disdain but in his usual fashion, he double-downed with his economic theory, “A lot of people are staying here and they’re going to be doing their business here. They’re going to be traveling here. And they’ll be going to resorts here. And, you know, we have a great place.”

It is no wonder that this will be declared a pandemic, such is the unpreparedness and ineptitude shown by the authorities around the world. The guy in charge of America’s domestic safety, acting Department of Homeland Security head Chad Wolf could not even answer simple questions about the mortality rate of COVID-19 and how many masks are required to tackle the imminent threat the virus posed on their country. He thought the mortality rate was as low as that of influenza. Wolf could not even report how many cases of the virus were in the US. He has been in that job for four months, he ought to be better briefed. The official travel advice from the UK even as recently as March 1 for instance shows how reluctant the world is to contain the spread of the virus. Simply because containment will necessarily mean depriving people of their right of movement. Perhaps the price of a recession that would follow is too much for them to consider. So far, apart from China, no other country has shown any preparedness to lock down cities, or close down factories and highways. The UK lists Cambodia, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Laos, Macao, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam as Category 2 countries. This was their advice for travellers from Category 2 countries: https://travelhealthpro.org.uk/news/499/novel-coronavirus-covid-19-general-advice-for-travellers.

“If you are well, you do not need to self-isolate. Your family do not need to take any precautions or make any changes to their own activities. However, if you become unwell within 14 days after returning from these countries/areas you should follow the self-isolation advice from PHE and immediately call……” Really? Wouldn’t it be too late to stop the spread if someone begins to feel unwell well into the 14 day period? How many would have been infected by that one person?

They still play politics with it. They show their Sinophobia and find it entertaining. People like Jesse Watters of Fox News even demanded a formal apology from China for spreading the virus, accusing the Chinese government for failing to feed their people – he claimed they had to resort to eating raw bats and snakes. His ignorance (that’s giving him credit) or his vile and deliberate hate campaign (probably more accurate) should see his immediate sacking as host for Fox News The Five. It is not a show I watch since I read that the total IQ of the panel equates to no more than five.

It is not just the numbers that I think about. It is the people behind those numbers that I wonder about too. Some 48 cities in China were issued with lockdown notices, affecting over 500 million people. Have you ever experienced being stuck at home for weeks when you’re absolutely healthy? Highways, railways and other public transport systems all shut down? What about those with a loved one in hospice care, and not being able to visit or say their goodbyes? What about wakes and funerals? Deferred until further notice? What if you had a severe toothache? What about those without savings or in debt – yet could not return to work? How did they carry on when their whole world had stopped? What about those infected with the virus and could not get help? At the portal facing death, how did they cope? Did they suffer? Did they get to use the toilet paper they hoarded during the good times? Did death come quickly? How did they feel at the steps of the portal? Were they alone or did their loved ones dare to hold their hands and say goodbye? Mortals at death’s portal, that is something we cannot avoid. That is something I cannot avoid thinking of lately as my Ahyi lies on her hospital bed waiting to cross her portal. We all love her. May she not suffer.

Death is the portal we mortals must all face. It is the gateway to the unknown. What lies ahead once we pass that portal? I like to believe Richard Dawkins is right, that it leads to nothing. Even more blissful than a pebble. Upon death, my hope was to be reincarnated into a pebble, no more fights, no more burdens, no more worries. I know, I know. No more pleasure, no more joy and no more excitement either. But at least there will be no hell, right? And no heaven. Why would anyone hope to settle in heaven where it is sold to us as a perfect holiday retreat, forever? That is what frightens me. Perfection is boredom and predictability. You’d just know it is perfect, which means there is no variation. It would be akin to listening to a musical performance that is perfectly executed. That would be predictably boring. Forever. Heaven would drive me insane. Nothingness sounds a whole lot better. Yet, God is understood to have created the universe ex nihilo, “out of nothing”. A bit of me says He spoilt it. Nothing is better, for there would be no death, no urghhlings, and no funeral expenses to budget for. It was Parmenides, the 5th century BC Greek philosopher, who said “nothing” cannot exist. “To speak of a thing, one has to speak of a thing that exists. Since we can speak of a thing in the past, this thing must still exist (in some sense) now”. Albert Einstein similarly said “For those of us that believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In Eastern philosophy, nothingness is prized to drive out our ego. The practice of meditation is about achieving a state of emptiness in our mind. I’d like to empty my mind about death.