Flu and Flee Season

Fayes T Kantawala comes to terms with global Coronavirus fears

Flu and Flee Season
The immigration line at JFK airport is long. It is long enough that I can’t see the front. Around me hundreds of people have been standing for hours, shifting their weight from foot to foot as they anxiously peer over heads and behind corners to see how long we will all be stuck. Everyone is wearing facemasks, including the children At first glance it looks like the climax of a macabre medical drama. A blonde couple next to me begin rubbing their hands with antibacterial ointment for the fourth time in ten minutes. A woman in front me shoots suspicious glances at the Asian grandmother in the wheelchair.

Hours pass. We approach the imposing phalanx of immigration officers seated behind thick glass on their high desks. They do not look happy. Someone screams to the left as a uniformed guard comes and separates a woman from her husband.

“But I’m not sick!” He shouts, but they’ve already hurried him into a secret door in the wall. HIs wife looks on as she absentmindedly rubs more antibacterial into her palms. I keep my eyes straight ahead so I don’t attract attention. But an angry looking redhead wearing a sequined jumpsuit of stars and stripes calls me to his window. He begins interviewing me, shooting out test questions like “What is the capital of Chad?” And “how much is 13,349 times 43?”
I am less scared of catching the virus than I am at the measures frightened people will take to avoid it

As I reach down to pull out my passport I realize with a sinking dread that I’ve left it back in Lahore. He stands up and points a sole accusatory finger at me as more uniformed men jump towards me, which is when I look down to realize I’m not wearing any clothes. I walked past the line of waiting passengers where a 1960s-style girl group has mysteriously appeared in midair to fat-shame me with a catchy chorus.

I woke up pale and breathless, the alarm still beeping next to me. My pillow is soaked and it takes me a moment to realize I’m not dreaming anymore. The last three nights have been a revolving door of anxiety dreams. Impressed as I am at my inner saboteur’s scope and talent (who knew it could improvise a catchy vintage hook just about my stomach?), I don’t think the anxiety is entirely self-generated. Yesterday my travel agent called me to warn me that the Coronavirus already caused Qatar Airways to reschedule flights and that I should be prepared to change my plans if the same happens to other airlines. I don’t like flying Qatar (“As God is my witness, I will never spend 22 hours in Doha airport ever again…”) but the news was close enough to home to worry me.

“What’s happened?” I asked the agent.

“Watch the news,” he replied irritably.

Turning on the news this week feels like I am in the beginning of a movie about biological warfare. The global economy in a deep new recession, this one brought on not only by Russia-China-Saudi-US turf wars but also because a new virus is now so scary that entire countries are under quarantine (hello Italy, good bye Fashion Week). I am less scared of catching the virus than I am at the measures frightened people will take to avoid it. Already they have stopped travel between China and most of the world, and that precaution has already bled into South Korea, Italy, Iran, Nigeria and others. It’s not outside the realm of imagination that the US would, along with other countries, temporarily shut down its borders. This panic is, of course, in addition to the more prosaic political problems we have to deal with anyway.

“You should cancel your flight to New York,” a friend texted me after the scope of the travel restrictions became apparent. I know five people who have either postponed or cancelled their plans because of fears of the virus. At the risk of sounding like the blithely confident character in the beginning of the pandemic movie who died horribly before act 2 as a warning to the audience, I think I’ll be fine.

Frankly, CPEC worries me much more than an errant sneeze in the Dubai duty-free – because surely it must have occurred to someone somewhere that Pakistan has a lot of contact with the Chinese and that along our economic corridor might also lie a path to contagion. Still, Im both thrilled and suspicious of Pakistan’s infection rate which remains decidedly, stubbornly and (I’d wager) permanently low.

But even if one makes it through the airborne petri-dishes back into the US and survives, we are faced with a brand new global recession.

But you know what? Recession and flu be damned. The safest thing to do these days is wash your hands, take a deep calming breath and remind yourself that news channels make their money on convincing us the end is near. Or, to quote my gardener Bhola when he heard about my travel plans: “Life is too short to be afraid of a Corolla Wireless.”

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com