And, so, here we are: One of our tiniest fellow earthlings just pressed pause on our little lifeboat in space. We were just minding our own business, hanging out at the cineplex and watching the most exciting part of the movie where zombies/supervillains/aliens were ready to eradicate us all. Who doesn’t love horribly dysfunctional Earth futures, as long as there is enough of that greasy, yellow, mystery quasi-liquid on the popcorn? Then, all of a sudden, the movie became real.
Sometime at the end of 2019, a cute little pangolin, one of the friendliest, most harmless, most endangered creatures on God’s good earth, was just doing its thing when it was snatched from its family, shoved into a bag and smuggled to a place far away into northern China. Seems they think eating pangolin scales can cure everything from lactation difficulties to arthritis … or whatever.
Turns out, Mother Nature is writing in the tiniest nemesis we could ever imagine in what seems like a real-life apocalypse. Scientists are arguing whether COVID-19 was born of a living thing or a supermolecule. Hey, it may be tiny, but it’s powerful enough to cancel the Azalea Festival!
Interesting things, viruses. They’re so small that early researchers, who had microscopes good enough to make bacteria look as big as fried eggs, couldn’t see them. They have no DNA; they cannot reproduce themselves. They need a host to colonize—someone who basically gets hijacked into making more viruses. Think “Alien” but without a scary thing bursting through a human chest.
We generally get along pretty well with viruses. We inhale a few, they take over a bit of our lungs’ real estate and get a few of their kin out of dodge before the sheriff and some townsfolk show up for a public hangin’. Three cheers for white blood cells! Or whatever. Then we get on with our lives.
But the virus from this pangolin is a bit different. It is like when Putin flooded Facebook with disinformation in 2016. We had no natural defenses against our new, fake, social media friends—innocents who started out with cooking tips and lighthearted chatter but suddenly went dark, believing Hillary was the spawn of Satan. We let this digital virus into our lives, colonize our brains, and, well, what can we say? Shit happens.
As with social media, many of us will have no defenses against the virus that accidentally found itself saving the few remaining pangolins. We of superior intellect are sure it was just an accident, but the pangolins aren’t talking.
Then we arrive at the part in the movie when Richard Dreyfuss tells the mayor about a big shark. The mayor says, “Horsepucky!” and someone dies. Quint, played by Dr. Fauci, takes the microphone, as the mayor babbles fantasies about still getting money from Fourth of July crowds. Like all of his ilk, he desperately needs to be a hero.
But who can be a hero when dealing with a monster? “Godzilla is coming! Shelter in place!” The English version cut out instructions to buy all the toilet paper so our neighbors couldn’t have any, but the stampede scene is still in the director’s cut. Plus, there are bonus scenes of a few U.S. senators cashing out of the stock market after getting a secret intelligence briefing one month before the mayor starts yelling, “Hoax! It’s a hoax!” As we all know, a crisis really brings out the best in people.
As we wait for the scene where doctors set up makeshift triage in parking lots, convention centers and football stadiums (I’d cast Tom Hanks, though Steve Buscemi does frantic better), let’s use the time to think about living with our fellow Earthlings. Let’s think about how the destruction of the planet seems to have interrupted our movie about the destruction of the planet. If we as a species just let the pangolins hang out with their kids instead of staging a kidnapped dinner, we could be making plans for our own kids heading off to college or summer camp or a visit with Grandma, at the very least. Instead, we are on the brink of shelter in place.
Short of Newton’s Laws of Motion and that pesky one about gravity, there are few laws as certain as the one about unintended consequences. Much like the infinite monkey theorem (monkeys pecking on random typewriter keys ad nauseam, which somehow churn out “Hamlet” or even the complete works of Shakespeare), a measureless number of great and small crimes against nature have led us to our current unintended consequences. No one can predict which monkey did it, but as sure as night follows day, one has.
I’m betting Mother Nature gets the Oscar nod for Best Screenplay in 2021.