When one of our content analysts at The Citizen suggested in an editorial meeting last week that it might be worth doing an article about whether there’s much point to all the somber temperature sensing that happens in just about every public doorway throughout the length and breadth of this country, I was quick to answer: “Well, of course there’s no point. It’s more like a religious ritual than science.”
Sure, maybe here and there in the great ocean of humanity that our new enemy of civilisation – the dreaded Covid – is swimming about in, the occasional thermometer catches this slippery microscopic nemesis in a little laser net.
Somewhere, someone with Covid is probably being turned away from a Wimpy or Woolworths entrance because their temperature reading is 38 degrees. Verily, I believe.
But if we’re going to be brutally honest about it, the only people benefiting from all those little thermometer guns that remind me of the old tricorder props from Star Trek, are probably the people who sell all the thermometers.
(“Bones, what reading are you getting?” “Captain, it’s 39 degrees! I think we need to escape this system while we still can!”)
I once asked a waiter at a restaurant near my flat if they’ve ever had anyone show up with a temperature that was unacceptably high and then banished that overly heated human back to the badlands from whence they came.
“Yes, he said. I think so.”
He didn’t look too sure of himself though.
Then after another guy who took my temperature zapped my forehead once and dutifully showed me a reading of 32.2 degrees Celsius on his little screen – suggesting I was recently deceased and heading towards rigor mortis – I asked him what exactly he was meant to be doing.
Looking at me with the same unimpressed expression my Standard 4 maths teacher used to consider me with daily, he said: “I’m meant to point this thing at you or you can’t come in here.”
“Yes, but how do you know this thing is telling you it’s OK for me to come in here?”
“No, no. It’s okay. I point this at you, then I write the numbers here on this page and then you sign,” he explained to me patiently.
“And then I can come in?”
Fair enough, I guess.
As someone who suffered through 10 days of Covid last year, I happen to know that one of the last symptoms I actually developed was an elevated temperature. And by the time I got to that point, I had about as much interest in sneaking past the temperature police to go shopping at Woolies as I had in re-reading my Standard 4 maths textbook.
All I was interested in was lying down. And even lying down was hard work.
Apparently I was far from unique. Loss of smell and taste, diarrhoea, fatigue and so on are far better early indicators that you might have Covid. But since you can’t exactly ask everyone to squat into a bucket so the shop expert can examine the density of their latest stool sample, we’ve opted for the psychological comfort of zapping each other’s wrists.
During the plague-ravaged years of the Black Death in London, enterprising merchants did good business selling sweet-smelling substances to ward off infection. The rich indulged in breathing in the aromas of exotic spices, imported from the East, or they scattered cloves, cinnamon and fennel over their windowsills to scent the air.
This did absolutely nothing, of course, to prevent the highly infectious bacterium Yersinia pestis from getting into them and causing their agonising deaths, but at least things smelled a bit nicer.
So that’s why I don’t get too annoyed about the relative pointlessness of having my temperature taken a dozen times a day.
It’s helping people to feel a bit better about something that, in many ways, we’ve come to have a sense of such hopelessness and lack of control over.
It’s much the same as doing some kind of arcane gesture with your hand to ward off an evil spirit, wearing a charm around your neck, nailing a horseshoe over your doorway or just throwing salt over your shoulder.
It isn’t going to do much, but will help to gain you some courage to walk bravely into the valley of the shadow of death (AKA Pick n Pay) and buy your Weet-Bix.
I do wish, though, that I’d bought shares in an electronic thermometer company 18 months ago.