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Coronamania and the End of the World


Last month, my wife, Ellen, and I visited Costa Rica. Being there reminded us of our prior trip there in 1989, before it went zip-line/eco-tourism mainstream. At that time, after riding six hours from the capital, San Jose, in an old school bus, mostly on rutted dirt roads, we stayed in a remote Pacific Coast village.

Each morning and afternoon, small groups of schoolkids wearing uniforms of white cotton shirts or blouses above dark pants or skirts and carrying small backpacks walked by on the sand between their unseen homes on some distant part of the mile-long crescent beachfront and an unseen school at the other end. All but one of the kids had brown skin and black hair. The outlier was a blonde, sunburned ten-year-old boy.

Later that week, a tallish, also incongruously sun-reddened and blonde Caucasian man in his early forties, wearing a white, wide-brimmed hat, approached us on that otherwise empty beach and asked, in unaccented English, where we were from.

We began to chat. This tightly-wound guy had been a California dentist who had emigrated some years ago and now permanently resided in that coastal village, where he had become a small-scale commercial fisherman with a little boat, to which he pointed, anchored offshore. For him, this outpost was a refuge from a collapsing world. He spoke very disdainfully about North American culture.

A few years after we met this neo-fisherman, I rented the VHS video of the Harrison Ford 1986 movie, The Mosquito Coast. The fisherman’s persona closely resembled that of Ford’s deeply disaffected protagonist, who had also fled from his United States homeland. I half-wondered if Paul Theroux had, in his travels, met this fisherman before I did and based his eponymous novel on the fisherman; or if Central America was just a magnet for embittered expats.

Especially after the past three years, I can understand the perception that the United States is doomed and rotten. But I don’t want to succumb to that view. And I sure didn’t 34 years ago; deep pessimism about one’s homeland isn’t the right mindset for those who are—as we then were—about to have kids. Besides, while flawed, 1989 America seemed much more stable than 2023 America has become. Back then, the Berlin Wall had just been demolished and, as Francis Fukuyama optimistically predicted in his critically-acclaimed book, The End of History, a wave of elected post-Cold War governments and prosperity would soon sweep the globe.

Despite that rosy zeitgeist, the fisherman anxiously expressed during our half-hour conversation his belief that America would soon collapse from what he called “The Plague.”

I asked him what plague he was talking about. Did he mean AIDS?

He affirmed that he did.

I told him that this disease was only affecting a tiny, clearly identifiable fraction of the population. He seemed surprised by, and skeptical of, my perspective. I asked him what he had seen or heard to make him think that that virus might soon wipe out a diverse, populous nation. I forget which source he cited; he told me he didn’t own a TV. I think he referred to some story/stories he had read or seen in/on some mainstream media outlet; maybe an old copy of Time or someone else’s TV.

No matter where he got his information, I knew he was off-base. I didn’t feel a need to convince him that AIDS was nowhere near a nationwide “existential threat.” (That label hadn’t been invented or badly overused yet). I just told him that I lived in densely-packed Hudson County, New Jersey, five miles from NYC, I knew a lot of people, none of them had AIDS and, based on my direct, up-to-date observations, America was not in universal viral peril.

I was surprised that an ostensibly educated person would so strongly and mistakenly believe that AIDS, or any other infectious disease, could cause an Apocalypse. Viruses are self-limiting. Humans have been around for a very long time. Why, and especially when so many people had enough calories and protein and sanitation to build baseline health, would anyone expect a virus with a distinct, demographically-limited risk profile to kill everyone?

I could not have foreseen that 31 years later, much of the US would lose their heads over a virus that only endangered a tiny fraction of old, already sick people.

The fisherman hadn’t actually seen Americans dying en masse of AIDS. Yet, he believed they were, and believed that legions of heterosexuals and non-users of shared needles were also dying, even though they were at functionally zero AIDS risk. I didn’t know then that, as potential Presidential candidate RFK Jr. suggested in his 2022 book, The Real Anthony Fauci, some people think AIDS reflected the abuse of an immune-impairing, gay party drug, amyl nitrite. The media never mentioned that notion. If it’s true, the AIDS epidemic would resemble the SARS-CoV-2 “Pandemic,” in that deaths from other causes were misattributed to a virus.


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