Apocalypse Later

Wow, I haven’t updated in zonks. Unfortunately, I’m not going to update now either. Haha! Some things are brewing but I haven’t had the time or peace of mind to properly start on them yet.

I’m republishing here an essay that I wrote for George Town Literary Festival’s “Wake Me Up When This Is Over” COVID-themed writing competition this year. I did not win. I wrote this towards the end of June. Reading it, I’m surprised at how dark and moody I was, how persecutory, how scared, and how doomed my thinking. I sometimes still feel this way, but I don’t feel as scared now, nor am I as willing to be controlled.

Now, I feel desperate for freedom, to be out and experiencing my life to the fullest. The more people scold and make snide comments online about other people not following the new regulations, the less I care. The less I want to be trapped within the apocalyptic mode of thinking. Yes, things are bad, and we should all do our part to prevent things from getting worse, if we can’t do anything to make them better. But also, it doesn’t seem fair. As bratty as it sounds, I’m only in my mid-20s and everyone is already telling me about how the world’s going to end. I want to go out again, rip all the meat off life’s marrow and seek out all the spaces where my friends still are.

Everything feels frantic. The belief is starting to cement in me that any change that will happen from here on out will only be for the worse: adult cynicism. And yet, for this very reason of civilisation’s decline, I feel freer (or more nihilistic), more desperate to leave the house and steer things back to normal again. It used to be that everything’s awful and we should all mourn. Now it’s everything’s awful, and it’s just going to get worse anyway, so you might as well try to have fun while you can still get away with it.

I’m a terrible person to have around during a crisis. But I’m starting to realise that there’s another way of beating the disease, instead of just sitting at home and waiting for instructions. The first MCO made me so morose. Everyone, including myself, kept scolding each other about not staying in the house. To face the apocalypse, one can’t just hide forever in the home, which is what we’ve all been doing — not just this year, but for a long time now.

I used to believe that the police were in the right at giving out summons to people jogging or walking in the street, because I believed that if a rule is applicable to one part of the population, then it should be applicable across the board with no exceptions. I believed that, without authority, we would never be able to get rid of this virus. We cooped an entire nation’s population up inside and prevented them from getting any exercise or outdoor time at all, while telling them that the people most likely to suffer severely — perhaps terminally — from this novel disease are people with immunity problems?!

Lately I don’t know what’s going on or what to believe, which I think is the point of the whole thing.

I need to become healthier and exercise more, so that I can pull my weight and run fast. So that my internal systems are fortified, and not prone to meltdown so easily. So that I can do things for the people I love if they’re not able to do it themselves.

More on my COVID revelations when (if) this all ends. Incidentally, I’ve started listening to some trap music again, for the first time since 2018: in particular, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode II (2020) and Playboi Carti’s Die Lit (2018) again.

Anyway, for now, have this:

Apocalypse Later

For the first time, I felt like the world was really changing. News and media pundits liked to make a big deal out of every other story, claiming this or that would be the one event to change everything, until it quietly faded into the ether of irrelevance and things pretty much snapped back to normal. As a millennial, I think I’d always had a certain healthy skepticism towards the media — I cannot remember a time when I fully trusted that the news was telling me the entire truth; I had always wondered about ulterior motives. The point being that I had never truly believed in the sensationalism of some opinion writers, never felt convinced by much doomsday soothsaying, not even when they used the phrase “now, more than ever”, never really believed that the world was liable to change nor that Francis Fukuyama was wrong when he claimed that we were at the end of history. Not until the pandemic.

In the weeks under lockdown, I lost count of the days, lost control of my sleep, and I felt as if I could feel the world physically changing into something much more unfamiliar and sinister. I started to feel a dread anxiety after certain hours in the night, along with having violent visions and dreams. On the night of the MCO announcement, I was going home from a friend’s place late at night, and as I looked out at all the towering bodies looming up over Kuala Lumpur (while also battling a new
anxiety that the seat I was on was infected with coronavirus), the city I knew seemed to recede in my mind, replaced by something uncannily similar, but now profoundly dangerous in ways that could not be seen. Even if we returned to normal, I felt in my heart that that would only serve to confirm the new sinister nature of things.

At the very start, in my naivety, I had imagined that once Phase 1 of the MCO ended, we could all gather for a huge party at some point, to celebrate our friendship and raise a glass to the time spent apart, a renewed delight in the company of others that would remind us never to take each other for granted again. Of course, this didn’t happen. What happened instead was that we slowly got accustomed to not seeing each other, calling occasionally but not as often as we thought we would, finding other things around the house to concern ourselves with, withdrawing from social media because it got tiring to view and post the same things over again. I watched and noticed how, overnight, my entire timeline was taken over by the virus and everyone I followed in all parts of the world was talking about it; even the humour pages were making memes related to it. It was a planetary event, the virus pushing every nation onto its knees, like the world wars. To talk about anything else was inconceivable. I participated in as few online meetings and forums as I could get away with.

Governments around the world started to introduce crisis protocol, which meant they were momentarily instating welfare measures that had either been decimated a long time ago, or had never existed. Homeless people were housed in hotels to protect them from the invisible coronavirus ravaging the streets and all surfaces. Food was freely distributed to areas under extended lockdown; some residents reported that they’d never eaten so well. Private hospitals were nationalised and profiteers who were hoarding hand sanitiser had all their stock requisitioned. Could this be where the party really was? Could the virus be the Revolution, the singular internationalist transformation that bypassed all debates, electoral procedures, and the pundits’ commentary to authoritatively force our
economics and social policies to be kinder and more humane?

I hadn’t realised that all I wanted was such a cataclysmic event (of the sort that seemed to happen all the time in the century right before mine) that would restore an urgency to life. Break through the end of history and begin again. Ambitions, judgments, all of life’s daily performative rituals thrown out the window. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs asserted itself as the new and more honest paradigm for structuring society: industries were classed as “essential” and “non-essential” accordingly, and there was pretty much universal agreement and respect for this. Thankfully, I no longer had to worry about the meaning and direction of my life, none of those questions of “self-realisation” at the top of the hierarchy — I only had to keep myself clean, healthy, and safe, and to leave the house as rarely as possible. The most helpful thing you can do for us right now is to just stay at home, many doctors said. It was a relief to realise that I was scared of catching the coronavirus. This meant that I did not want to die, after all.

Over the months though, things started to take back their old shape again. Every night during the lockdown, I would sit outside on my balcony and check the day’s global statistics on outbreak.my. I remember the quiet and still nights—which were often cold, too, since it rained a lot during the lockdown—when I would look across the rooftops from my tenth-story perch, and observe the distant roads where only the orange lights of some government-sanctioned vehicle would glide by. In all my life, I had never seen such an emptiness in the city before, made even more uncanny knowing that it was not for lack of people: my friends and everyone who made up my life were right where they always were, I was just not allowed to see them. Now, it’s pretty much back to normal — the red and yellow glow of private commuters zipping down after each other. You wouldn’t think that such a novel experience of lockdown and prohibition would be easily forgotten, and yet we’re already forgetting. When I began to see my friends again and things mostly returned to normal within the span of a few days, I described the eerie feeling as like being plucked out of time. Like waking up after a hibernation. The generations before us who experienced historical life-changing moments often developed trauma-related disorders around the inability to forget; the issue for us seemed to be that we were incapable of remembering, even though we were always being told that we were in deeper shit than we’ve ever been, “now more than ever”. We return to normal without any sort of reckoning with what had just passed. Time tends to melt into air.

Part of this may have something to do with the Internet, where news spreads faster than ever (to such a point of saturation that nothing is urgent anymore) and it somehow seemed crucial to have the “right” opinion and the “right” level of urgency towards the coronavirus, even though it was totally novel and the contradictions in its proper handling had been evident from the start. The lockdown meant people were more online than ever to fan the flames of the gorging Moloch, that Beast of the Internet at whose altar we all sacrificed our time tweeting and posting to, yet who remained fundamentally indifferent towards it all. The most well-fed creature throughout the pandemic!

No wonder we were forgetting — perhaps our social media whiplash was our version of a stress disorder after all. I remembered reading multiple news pieces about potential COVID-19 vaccines being tested in several different countries, alongside multiple alarming new discoveries being published daily about the coronavirus and its spread: hope and despair in constant collision with each other. It didn’t have to be such a zero-sum game of course, but the news heads knew that without their sensational headlines nobody would bother reading anything. Still, nobody bothered reading anything anyway. Remember when the virus first broke out in China, and the knee-jerk racists immediately called for all Chinese travellers to be banned while the equally reactionary liberals denounced this suggestion as anti-Chinese racism? Eventually, every traveller was banned. That remained a sort of sore spot for me throughout the pandemic, the point when it was evident that both sides of these ideologies were operating based on irrelevant principles which made them unprepared to handle a virus. We’re doomed! (Of course, the term “virus” means something else in IT lingo.)

Reading the countless articles that baited my click, I realised that my eyes were dipping in and out of focus, straining to balance the weight of everyone else’s emotional certainty, which they tended to translate into collectively bashing anyone who wasn’t taking the coronavirus as seriously as other people wanted them to. One of the more titillating events of my lockdown life was getting to listen to someone else’s meltdown in real-time, as my (definitely bored, possibly drunk) neighbour started yelling out her window at some people walking on the street downstairs. “Oi! Why are you people walking around? Duduk di rumah! Duduk di rumah!” I heard her because my window was open. When I peered over to see who she was yelling at, however, I could not see anyone.

I kept having to remind myself that I did not know anything at all, and that all our lives were contingent on invisible forces we’d never be able to decipher, whether you want to call them God, or Fate, or pure chance. The unpleasant thing about the social media hysterics is that they implicitly claimed to be able to decipher these forces, thereby giving them the authority to police others. I felt that we had lost something — in terms of lives, certainly, but also in terms of an unspoken trust in the Universe that allows a person to live without fear, and thus a certain sense of human dignity. The logic of contingency is the same as the logic of Maslow’s hierarchy: as you go up the hierarchy, each concern decreases in relevance while increasing in conceit, until the only thing you could bother yourself with without seeming like an absolutely delusional, pathetic fool is your own health and safety. Like a Second Coming for savages, in which the world was divided not into “good” and “bad”, but simply into “sick” and “well”. Everything else fell away.

The lockdown felt like the first time in my life when external reality reflected the reality inside me: grim, austere, punishing, and anxious. It wasn’t that I wanted something bad to happen, but rather that I had long wondered if the world had stopped moving forward, whether things could only get worse from here on. The evidence was long present, from the death knell of the earth by climate catastrophe, to the growing discrepancy between what young people were promised with higher education to what we actually got, to the apparently endless capacity for cruelty and exploitation among man — and man’s own incredible elasticity in bouncing back to their tenuous ‘normal’ after everything that’s passed. Either it is the perseverance in the human spirit or we are all a society of schizophrenics. It was not that I wanted the apocalypse to come, like a cultic preacher of the Second Coming, but rather that I had already felt we were living in bad, bad times, and I wanted this to be the last bad time, the one that finally woke us up and forced us to overhaul and restructure our fragile systems. But now in the days after, I slouch out of my house alongside everyone else, into the “new normal”, which is really just the old normal, to be born again, which is really just staying the same.

June 2020