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The First Horseman is here and He is Pale

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell.” -Revelations 6

“Sir, is this written in the Bible?”

The Grab driver was asking me about the corona virus. I did not know how to respond. I was ready to explain to him details about the virus and the preventive measures. I already told him the impending lockdown but his question about whether the pandemic is written in the Bible caught me unawares.

I looked at the driver and his face looked sincere. Would I tell him he would soon lose his passengers in the coming days? That there would be chaos and government failure. That night though I still could not see what would happen when the lockdown was implemented. There between the five minutes between me and the bus terminal was a space of ignorance.

If he were my dear grandmother, Emilia, I would have easily teased him about the end of the world and how the Heavens would burst open, as in those Easter Sunday pageantry, and bring forth the three Persons in One God, and how Hell would open and swallow all sinners. That word “swallow,” the very act of being eaten by the ground, by the very earth on which one lived was very real to my grandmother and to me. But first, there would be storms and fires and brimstones. Then my grandmother would shiver in fear as if seeing the phantoms of death and final judgment. Deep within, we would be enjoying that exercise in unlocking the mystery of this universe and that deeper contract we humans have with mortality. Then she – as always – would go back to playing Solitaire.

Well, I am alone now in this hotel. On self-quarantine. The city has demanded that all those coming from Manila be on self-quarantine. The idea being was that we who have stayed in the metropolis are the contaminated one. Tainted. Impure.

Online the posts were abrasive and judgmental: you from Manila have to cleanse yourself! Dai magparayaba-yaba. Do not be loitering around else you will make us all sick. Some comments were downright sick: why do you have to come home?

Overnight, when the pandemic had become very real, coming home was bad. Suddenly, home was not home. There was no kinship in the age of the virus. There was only the stranger, the harbinger of disease, the danger.

The city announced some strict measures. There was no problem about that but those who knew this city were appalled when they read the warning, “register or be arrested.”

The world was scared, deathly scared. All places realized they have boundaries and they have the right to seal those borders.

The fear has a name. It had a name early on. As early as December, people have heard already of this virus that is killing people in China. The idea about the disease and the response to it came creeping up, very slowly. It was only happening in China. It cannot happen to us. But the cases started to go up. Exponentially. Rapid increase. Nation after nation began reporting cases of infection. Deaths came next.

From epidemic, it became pandemic. Leaders and teachers scramble to find the difference between the two: the latter connotes global. The word “plague” surfaced. It is an ancient name. It has varied roots from Latin to Greek, with the word referring to “pestilence,” as we know it now, and with the act of “beating the breast” as in lamenting, as its other meaning.

Mention plague and a host of historical events are exhumed. Remembered was the Black Death, also called the “Great Bubonic Plague,” which wiped out nearly 2oo million people, as some data would put it, in 1400. The 1918 Spanish flu was brought up as a reminder. Societies recalled Ebola, SARS…

I was waiting for the so-called “Ten Plagues” in Exodus but the situation was so grave no one wanted to go back to the Bible.

Is the coronavirus in the Bible?

By January of 2020, the geomancers and feng shui experts released their predictions about the coming year. The Year of the Metal Rat it was announced. What does this animal signify? Stability and longevity, the divinations assured us.

Is the coronavirus in geomancy?

Came this affliction that would compel us to dispense with kisses and embraces. Then came this most terrible virus that has urged even the most intransigent of beings – the bishops – to dispense with the public Catholic Mass. Then came this contamination that would command us to close first our homes, then our cities, then the biggest island in the archipelago.

Whenever our world is struck with calamities and tribulation, we always turn if not to prayers for succor then to symbols in old books for assurance. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one of our favorite whipping boys to justify the arrival of scourges and sorrows.

Frightening and baffling, the Four Horsemen are subject to conflicting interpretations. On one end is the comforting meaning of the horsemen as Christ and his role couched in more esoteric layers of signification; on the other extreme are the horsemen as the terrifying emblems of all forms of negation – Death, War, Conquest, Pestilence.

The first Horseman rides a white, pallid horse. In some exegetical – or uncovering – commentaries, this horseman must be Christ. In some readings, the first Horseman stands for plagues and infectious diseases. There is duplicity as well as multiplicity in the symbols. This disease and torment can rapidly diminish our population. As we follow the command to retreat, we are creating spaces for the world to heal. In the silences of fear, we can now listen to ourselves. In the terror, we become aware that we belong to a living group.

The first Horseman is pale and white. He enters our cities. Do we lock down?

The diviners are quiet. The governments and leaders are loud but they do not make sense.

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