Every Wednesday, for the past three years, I’ve been running Chinese-English translation events. Yesterday’s text was about face masks, speculating why westerners don’t wear them. This word popped up in a sentence, ‘气溶胶’ – translating as ‘aerosol’.
Earlier that day, I had come across a picture showing a primary school in Taiwan. Kids isolated at their desk, with yellow plastic around their desk. Each in their own little bubble of air.
Late in the evening, on my final corona-Facebook check, I came across this in a friend’s post: “NEVER shake used or unused clothing, sheets or cloth. While it is glued to a porous surface, it is very inert and disintegrates only between 3 hours (fabric and porous), 4 hours (copper, because it is naturally antiseptic; and wood, because it removes all the moisture and does not let it peel off and disintegrates). ), 24 hours (cardboard), 42 hours (metal) and 72 hours (plastic). But if you shake it or use a feather duster, the virus molecules float in the air for up to 3 hours, and can lodge in your nose.”
It was a bit of a joke, in high school, to feel grossed out that we breathe the same air. That it goes in my lungs, then out, then into yours – whether I consent or not. With Covid-19, this came home. I noticed myself, the rare times I’ve been out this week, dodging people. As I replay those encounters in my head now, I imagine each of those passers by leaving a trail of aerosol, and how I stepped right into it. I imagine the mist of viral dust floating through the streets, like bushfire smoke, like John Carpenter’s Fog.
I never understood obsessive cleanliness, but always knew that it’s a thing. When I was growing up, I had two cousins who were ‘maniaque’, as the French used to say: “you could eat on the floor in their place.” The rest of us mocked them, slightly – and I never quite understood them. Why spend so much time on something so pointless.
Covid-19 taught me something in that regard. I have read descriptions of the virus surviving on surfaces for hours, entire days even. And noticed myself, going out of my apartment, relating to the built environment differently. I touched a doorknob, pressed on the elevator button. There might be germs, and they might kill me. I even bought an antiviral aerosol, and found myself spraying doorknobs, table surfaces and phone screen. Was this the way my cousins had related to their homes the whole time?
I wonder, then, how Covid-19 will impact our desire to control, and our capacity to let go. For isn’t obsessive cleanliness a desire to control: through bleach and mop, make the surrounding world an extension of the self, by destroying any trace of ‘pollution’. The virus is an alien presence, threatening our sense of continuity with the world. Will we let it take over surfaces, textiles, and doorknobs, and accept its destructive potential – or will we not give up on controlling it, and bleach it out of our self-isolated existences?
**Spoiler alert** There is a twist at the end of the Watchmen. To foster unity among the nations, and avoid a nuclear apocalypse, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion. And it works: nothing beats a common enemy to create a sense of unity.
This is a common trope in many sci-fi narratives, from Independence Day to the Three-Body Problem. Bring in the aliens, and our petty fights falter in the face of the new menace.
Could this be what Covid-19 is offering us? A common, non-human enemy threatening to kill us all, and against which we could all rally?