Margaret Atwood: Coronavirus underscores need for free press

By Julio Cesar Rivas

Toronto, Apr 20 (efe-epa).- In a good-natured video interview at her home in Toronto amid the current crisis, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood told Efe that she has long been interested in plagues and recalled that she has written about them in the past.

Among other thoughts about the virus and the post-Covid-19 world to come, she said countries and governments must be more prepared the next time around and also stressed that the need for a free press will be greater than ever.

The Booker Prize-winning author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its sequel, “The Testaments,” sits at the computer in her home office, adjusts the camera to change the frame of the image and grabs her coffee cup before talking to Efe about her daily routine during the pandemic and other matters.

The 80-year-old daughter of an entomologist, Atwood exudes optimism – which she terms realism – and comfortably uses epidemiological terms and concepts, peppering her remarks with her keen sense of humor.

Question: How are you dealing with the self-isolation, social distancing and generally a different way of living our lives?

Answer: As you well know, writers spend a lot of their time at home anyway, writing books. And I grew up in a pretty remote part of the world where there weren’t very many people. So I’m used to that much more than many other people are, who are very used to being with people really a lot, with their business and socializing. It’s quite a lot harder for them than for me. I got back from being out of the (country) on March 10, which when you look at the chart you can see that things started to go very upwards right after that. So I got back just in time and I self-isolated for the right number of days and now I’m social distancing. So for me it’s not a complete change. I never went to the office anyway (laughing).

Q: But you have altered the way that you live.

A: So we had to cancel a lot of events. We’re moving a number of things online, things that we otherwise would have done in person, and I’m spending quite a lot of time talking this way with people such as yourself on a screen rather than going out for a nice cup of coffee somewhere. It’s nicer to have a cup of coffee somewhere but I’ve got one here so I’m having a cup of coffee with you, but not exactly with you.

Q: So clearly Covid-19 has not stopped you.

A: It hasn’t stopped me, but it’s altered the way I do things. But I think unless you’re really ill, or you’re very, very anxious about your business, it doesn’t exactly stop people. It relocates them and changes some of the things they’re doing in daily life. There’s an awful lot of bread-baking going on, so much so that we’ve had trouble getting flour. I haven’t bread-baked for years and years and years but I’m doing it now. And more home cooking of course and more gardening.

Q: Is this crisis affecting you (emotionally) in any way?

A: Well, sure. I’m worried about other people. I’m not that worried about myself because there’s nothing actually wrong with me at the moment. So if you’re in a house, if you’ve got enough food, if you’re not ill, if your small children are not driving you completely round the bend, and if you are not really, really worried about what may become of your life, which a lot of people are worried about that, why would you be anxious? So about myself, no, about other people, yes. But at my age, there aren’t a lot of people older than me that I’m worried about.

Q: Do you think we’re blowing this situation out of proportion?

A: You can’t tell people that they should compare themselves to some other reality they’ve never experienced. And especially for younger people that never have gone through this, unlike people my age … it’s pretty scary … It’s a pandemic. That means it’s a virus. That means we can develop a vaccine against it. And once that’s done, it can be deployed like other vaccines and you can reduce the transmission rate to less than one and then hopefully, if not under control, it would be more under control and possibly even gone, like SARS.

Q: I can hear that you are an optimistic person.

A: I think I’m just realistic. We know what it is. People are working on it. We know how it’s transmitted, pretty much, these days. We don’t know everything about it because we now know that in some people it causes not only lung damage but other kinds of damage too. But we actually know a lot more about it than people knew in the 14th century during the Black Death. And we even know more than they knew at the beginning of SARS. So scientists got on to it pretty quickly. What was wrong was that we weren’t prepared. We hadn’t listened to epidemiologists earlier. We hadn’t stockpiled medical supplies.

Q: Your father was a scientist, an entomologist who studied infestations that caused large numbers of trees to die. How do you think he would have seen this pandemic?

A: That is correct. He would have said: “I’m not surprised.” Our house, as you might expect, was filled with various kinds of science books and amongst them was one of the early entries in the field called “Rats, Lice and History.” And it was by Hans Zinsser and it was dated from the 1930s. But it was followed by other books like that which talked about various kinds of pandemics, species extinctions. The planet has seen a lot of these events … We also have “Guns, Germs and Steel” quite recently from Jared Diamond. We have “1491” which detailed what happened in North and South America when European diseases hit the continent, diseases to which people had no acquired or inherited immunity, which is where we stand in relation to COVID-19. That’s why it’s spreading this way because nobody’s got any immunity – except right now, those who have had it and have recovered. We hope they will have immunity. We don’t even know that quite yet.

Q: What role do artists and writers like you have in a moment like this?

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