In 1815 Mount Tambora erupted and caused global climatic changes. The following year, 1816, later known as the “year without a summer,” gothic writer John Polidori, poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and his future bride, Mary, were holidaying by the shores of Lake Geneva. The weather was foul and, as a result, a suggestion was proposed that they each write a ghost story. Mary was then 18 and, perhaps inspired by the death of her first child, the proximity of Castle Frankenstein, and the surging interest in galvanism, wrote what is perhaps the best-known horror book, Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus.
This novel relates the story of a man-made monster who is rejected by his creator and seeks to wreak revenge. Littered with implausibilities, such as the fiend learning to read and interpret Milton’s Paradise Lost merely by surreptitiously listening to a rural family interact, it is an allegory, with roots all the way back to biblical creation. Humans need to tell stories, we need to find reason, from opening act to resolution. But real life is not a story. The monster we are now facing, the virus causing Covid-19, is every bit as scary as Mary Shelley’s creation, but there are some key differences.
First, the virus was not, I am certain, created in some secret laboratory by a mad scientist. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein hides his creation from the world, ashamed at what he has brought to life and the harm it has caused. Was information shared as rapidly and transparently as possible by the Chinese? Maybe not. Was this an act of commission or omission? My late father taught me that if something looks like a conspiracy, it is usually incompetence, as people are not that smart, nor are they good at keeping secrets. I recently stated that misinformation is far beyond mischievous; it could have profound negative consequences. Now is not the time for political maneuvering or finger-pointing; instead, let us cooperate and communicate honestly and with expedition. To those people promulgating such nonsense, please go back to looking for UFOs or the abominable snowman – much more fun and less likely to induce unforeseen consequences, like racist attacks on Asians. To do otherwise will result in unnecessary suffering and deaths.
As pilots, we use a specific and precise language; an ATC message is clear and direct, and we parrot it back to ensure we are on the same page. There is no hyperbole, no arm-waving. Anybody who enjoys literature, or merely consuming technical articles, understands that not only is the content important, but so are tone and manner. In the context of the pandemic, I find it deeply objectionable to read about “fighting a war” or even worse, for individuals to do “battle against the disease.” If someone succumbs, must we then assume they were lily-livered, weak of will? I assure you, if comatose and ventilated, there is no ongoing thought process that can influence the outcome. This pandemic is due to a minuscule particle, so small and bizarre it defies definition as a life-form. It is not “vicious”; it does not “choose” whom to infect. One cannot “fight” it with guns and violence; we need wisdom and consideration. We, the public, choose by our actions or inactions to be infected and affected.
And this disaster is not “unprecedented,” as so many media commentators and politicians are saying; the word means something that has not happened, been done or known before. We have had countless viral pandemics, including the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1919, whether it was 30 million or 50 million who lost their lives. This was an H1NI influenza virus, similar to the one that killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide in 2009. And there was SARS. And MERS. And Ebola. And HIV/AIDS. It has not been a matter of “if” but “when” and how severe it would be. Check out Bill Gates’ TED talk from 2015 or watch Contagion, the 2011 movie. Or read Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague. Or. Or. Or. Can you imagine being this unprepared as a pilot? “I am sure there is enough fuel in the tanks. I can taxi onto that runway or bust through that cloud without calling ATC. It will probably be fine.” Except it won’t.
So, I am asking my fellow pilots to be a voice – set aside your politics, set aside your personal perspectives, and do the following: