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The Emperor’s New Covid

Originally published on LinkedIn on December 1, 2021

Drained after a long day in the office, she was glad to be home. Pulling off her triple-layered smartmask, she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. Slumping into the comfy chair, she looked up to see her three year old running towards her excitedly, demanding a story. It was a promise she'd made that morning while scanning her daily results into the phone.

“Okay, then,” she said, feeling cornered. “Go ahead and choose a book. Just one, okay?”

The boy changed his mind several times. Finally, trailing a small pile of rejected titles on the floor, he walked back and climbed up to his mum’s lap. She chuckled at the odd bedtime choice, but obligingly opened the cover and began to read. “Many years ago,” she began, “there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed”.

As she mouthed the words her tired mind began to drift. Her office shift was over for another week. From tomorrow she’d be back at home, hunched over her laptop in the small bedroom, lifting it to the light during Zoom calls, skipping between work and childcare. “One day two swindlers came to town. They claimed to be weavers and said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics.”

Four years they’d lived like this, the new normal. Looking back, the first winter went easy. The usual season sickness vanished, shut out by the masks. The following year it came back stronger than ever. This made the other measures even more important. She recalled the updated Happy Birthday jingle: “Wash your hands and your face! To be safe keep your space! Stay indoors, sleep and rest! And take your daily test!” "“These must, indeed, be splendid clothes!” thought the Emperor. And he gave large sums of money to the weavers.”

The sickness lasted longer than anyone expected. What was it now, wave 8 or 9? The papers warned the next one could be the worst. It became a race with the new treatments. Twenty years they’d tried to develop one like this, and now they’d come up with three in six months. An odd few whitecoats protested at the margin, but these were safely dismissed. After all, we've known since the days of Galileo not to challenge the authorised Word. “So the two pretended weavers set up two looms, and pretended to work very busily, though in reality they did nothing at all.”

At first the take up was slow. Many hesitated, having learned the overall mortality rate was just 0.15%, with a 99%+ survival rate for the under 70s. But gradually they came forward, led by the incentives: lotto tickets, burger and fries, pizzas, donuts and beer. Anything to protect our health. “The Emperor was eager to see how the weavers were getting on. He remembered that only clever people would be able to see. Though he didn’t doubt himself, he sent his honest old minister to check on his behalf.”

Eventually, the treatments became mandatory, at first only for health workers. The treated were granted special freedoms, like being able to sit on a park bench with a friend once a week. To make it more convenient, the authorities launched a new app, AuthorisedFreedompass. Later, for those who took the monthly boosters, there was AFP Elite. “The honest old minister went to the room where the two swindlers sat working at their empty looms. “Heaven help me,” he thought, I can't see anything at all”. But he did not say so.”

The sickness kept mutating, skittling its way through the Greek letters. By year three they switched to Cyrillic. Restrictions continued for those who didn’t follow The Science, notably minorities. Courts defended the arrangements under a new ruling, ‘Separate but Equal’. Black Lives Matter updated their hashtag, #VBLM. “"Just look, Your Majesty, what colours! What a design!" They pointed to the empty looms, each supposing that the others could see the stuff.”

The boy yawned, fighting to stay awake. The mother took pity, deftly skipping to the last chapter at the next page turn. She’d been a big supporter of the grassroots campaign #nowthekids to convince government to expand the rollout to toddlers. It was the first time anyone could remember them backing down. “How is this?” thought the Emperor to himself. “I can see nothing!” But out loud he said,“Oh, the cloth is charming! It has my complete approbation.””

She received the letter last month, with news of the latest trial. Science had advanced so far, they could now offer protection not just from this sickness but new, unknown ones in the future. She promised her son a special bowl of Strawberries with Sugar if he’d take part. Laying aside the book, she scooped him up and carried him tenderly to bed. Pulling the cover over, she kissed his forehead and fitted on the bedtime mask. With a last effort the child sobbed, “Mummy, I don’t like those bad clothes men.” “It’s okay,” reassured the mother. “Don’t worry, sweetie. It’s only a story. Get your rest now. Big day tomorrow.”

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