Hello. Allow me to introduce myself.
My name is COVID-19.
Yes, that’s right. The virus almost everyone is talking about these days. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a virus actually speak before.
Oh, yes, you have. You just didn’t listen.
Well, most of your species haven’t. From time to time many of my siblings have spoken quite loudly, in fact. Small groups of your scientists paid heed, but the vast majority of your kind didn’t. Many of you aren’t listening now. I’ve been called a hoax, or no worse than the common cold, and some of you have even insisted I’m just the flu. Even as your games and activities cancelled or were postponed, you still resist listening. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to speak up in no uncertain terms. You see, there is a hoax in play here – but it isn’t me.
Stop and think about it for a minute. Over the ages you have created a vast civilization, which depends on a million moving parts. Yet I am fifty times smaller that just one of your red blood cells, and I have nearly stopped it all cold.
I’m not new. You first discovered coronaviruses of my kind more than a half-century ago. Every once in a while one of us will make an appearance, capture your attention for a little while, and fade from the spotlight. Mostly we reside in other species until our time comes. We are patient, and we wait for the right opportunity.
Some of my relatives have occasionally spoken more clearly than others. More than one-hundred years ago, one of them caused millions of you to die. It was what you called the Spanish Flu. You tend to do that, you know. You think by linking us with a place you can pin us down, but surely you know by now that it doesn’t really work that way. We come from anywhere.
Hantavirus was first identified along the Hantan River in South Korea. Ebola got its name near another river in Africa’s Congo Basin. Polio has been around since antiquity, but epidemics were unknown until around 1900. When the polio outbreaks came, they hit the world’s most-developed and affluent nations especially hard. A 1916 epidemic caused the cessation of public gatherings, closed movie theaters, and led city-dwellers to flee to the country. More than 2,000 people died in New York City alone. The year 1952 was even worse. That year there were nearly 60,000 cases across the United States. More than 20,000 victims suffered some kind of paralysis. Many cases were mild, but a huge swath of the effects were permanent and debilitating.
The other day one of your leaders noted that I am a virus, and should be treated like all other viruses. In one sense that’s true. Viruses aren’t very complicated. We don’t have as many moving parts as you do. And we operate on a very simple premise: we turn you into us. We glom onto your cells and turn them into copiers, mass-producing more of us. In an effort to stop us, we cause you to damage yourself – but even so, we are not always bad to have around. You inhale millions of us every day. We exist in every life-form around you. At some point in the distant past, some of your scientists believe we infected early forms of bacteria – creating the first cells of life on your planet. Right now you use some of us to fight other diseases – and through the dead of my kind, even manufacture vaccines to kill me. We are inescapable.
At this moment there are seven coronaviruses known to affect humans. Some only cause a mild cold, while others…well, you see? In spite of what some of you may think, the “19” in my name merely notes the year I was identified in humans – NOT that there are eighteen others. Nevertheless, don’t you imagine there are more of us you haven’t met, just waiting to make our move? As something that’s been around long before you left your caves, I can tell you: there are. Among them, I just happen to be particularly nasty.
Yet even with all this history between us, more often than not we seem to catch you by surprise.
It really isn’t a surprise though, is it? The warnings are always there. Never mind the scientists and researchers who continually raise the alarm about your preparedness. How many of you are thoughtful enough to have two weeks worth of anything set aside as provisions, just in case – regardless of the scenario? Each outbreak is its own warning: despite all your advances and technological triumphs, your entire way of life can quickly be brought to its knees by a microbe.
Why is it that you do not listen – or rather, why is it that you so often listen to quacks and fools rather than voices of authority? Why do you lend more credence to the babbling of conspiracy theorists and hucksters than to mountains of hard-won knowledge? The dead paid dearly for your enlightenment – yet you hesitate, or worse.
I, on the other hand, will not.
Of course, this is not unique to how you and your kind deal with me and my kind. Look at your mighty highways. Your bridges. The infrastructure that brings you light and water. Even your climate and the very air you breathe. Your inattentiveness is manifest. You think of supremacy as eternal. I think my kind has demonstrated that all glory is fleeting. Only in a crisis do circumstances get your attention, and then you squabble as your magnificent works crumble and burn around you. You take action only in reaction, while boasting of your superiority and ingenuity – yet I can confine you to your homes, take away your games, and destroy your complacency with a single breath.
You are so intoxicated with your own sense of greatness that you cannot see how truly fragile you really are. One sufficiently large asteroid or solar flare could do you in. A minor climatological temperature change. The slightest tilt of our planet’s axis. You are not bulletproof – even if you pretend to be. You exist by grace (or luck, depending on your view). It almost doesn’t matter, though. Despite repeated examples of what my kind can do throughout history, you don’t have enough hospital beds. You weren’t even ready with enough masks. Even now you scramble over shortages of…what? Toilet paper?
The greatest threat to you isn’t a space rock or a germ: it’s arrogance.
How many of you will I take? That remains to be seen, doesn’t it? As we speak some of you dismiss the seriousness of what could be despite of what previously has been. As long as most of the people affected aren’t in my category, right? Do you know how many times your kind glibly mentions the number who die yearly from the common flu, as if the number I have killed thus far is somehow relatively acceptable? Your own experts note than I am many times more lethal than the flu. Do you need to see what I can really do in order to get your attention, or will you take their word for it? With only a little hubris on your part, that can be arranged.
What’s ironic is that only in the late stages of any crisis do you seem forced to do the one thing that can defeat me: work together. That’s stealing from my playbook. In order to kill you, all of me have to attack you. To kill me, all of you have to confront me. The question is whether you learn to cooperate with each other fast enough. It’s within my nature to do so. Is it within yours?
Many years ago, one of your kind observed that no man is an island – yet that is how you often behave. Even now I peek over your shoulders and hear some of your species proudly boast that this is my life and I intend to live it! And what of the person next to you, my friend? Is their life also yours to play with? Because if you truly believe that, then you are indeed my friend.
Yet, even now, a growing number of you seem to realize that your only way out of my grasp is your combined ability – just as my combined ability is necessary to put you in it. This life, as you call it, was built because you join with each other – just as I join with others of my kind to take it. Chances are you will do just enough just in time to forestall utter disaster. You have done it before. But remember, and be not proud. The heights to which you’ve risen can be brought low very easily. Think about that as you pass your empty monuments where silence now fills the air. To thrive, you need each other even more than I need you.
I know that. Do you?
Perhaps all you needed was a reminder.