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The Nostradamus of Belmore

Pondering prophesy in the pandemic.

Art by Deaundre Espejo.

“I know how many [new locally acquired COVID] cases there’s going to be tomorrow; no need for an update, Gladys,” pronounced comedian Jon-Bernard Kairouz on Tuesday 13 July 2021. Padding his “prediction” in the patois of pseudoscience, he claimed to have factored in the circumference of South West Sydney and the number of children per household in Fairfield to come to the elusive number “97”. The sceptics may have disputed his methods but — as if he were a cartomancer revealing an oddly specific tarot card — Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed 97 new local cases the next day.

As Kairouz’s run of correct prognostications ran into the weekend, he began promoting himself as the “People’s Premier,” complemented by pop cultural self-mythologising: he had a crayon removed from his brain that turned him into a super genius and was educated at a gifted school run by “Professor Xavier and Hugh Jackman.” In later videos conducted for breakfast TV, he sat in front of a plastic crown; plastic wrestling championship belts; and unpierced plastic cups of bubble tea, where he would continue to maintain that his forecasts were entirely obtained through simple mathematics. But theatrics aside, Kairouz was hardly the first oracle to be exalted during the pandemic.

Almost as soon as the virus leaped onto the world stage, a page from a revised edition of Dean Koontz’s sci-fi novel The Eyes of Darkness also went viral, describing a fictional illness called “Wuhan-400” (that’s about where the similarities end). Often disingenuously coupled with it is a passage from End of Days by prolific psychic Sylvia Browne which preaches of a pneumonia-like disease that will wreak havoc around the year 2020, before disappearing, then reappearing, then finally disappearing again forever. In the description for her treatise on Booktopia, the blurb writer informs us that we are living in the “Anxiety Age,” but, “[w]ho better to lead us out than popular psychic Sylvia Browne?”

Although the accuracy of these predictions may sound tenuous, in a peculiar way, they’re essentially meant to be comforting, pointing to a preordained nature to the universe, decipherable through conduits that help us navigate the unknown. On the other side of the coin, according to some fringe conspiracy theorists who believe Bill Gates foretold of COVID-19, he’s an evil mastermind who drummed up pandemic hysteria to sell microchipped Gates Foundation-funded vaccines (which, I can only assume, make you more inclined to buy Microsoft products), but at least he knows what he’s doing. The alternative — a world full of random slip ups, bungled vaccine rollouts, changing health advice, and leaders who fail to lockdown their constituents quickly enough — does nothing to placate our Anxiety Age apprehensions.

By this token, it makes sense that the great afflictions prophesied are inextricably linked to the precedented social upheavals of the teller’s own milieu: Koontz’s novel was published the same year as the first reported case of HIV/AIDS in the United States, Browne wrote at the height of 2012-mania, and Gates spoke at the tail end of the West African Ebola epidemic.

As fate would have it, Nostradamus too had his university education disrupted by the resurgence of the plague in France, which led him to an illustrious career in astrology. Plague, along with the other seemingly random misfortunes that befell 16th Century Europe, predictably feature heavily in his enigmatic prophecies, many of which have been repurposed for our own pandemic. The delightfully vague “fire in the ship, plague and captivity,” for example, could be a reference to the Ruby Princess’ delivery of plague and captivity early last year.

Perhaps due to its insufficient inscrutability, what the “Kairouz Probability Theorem” failed to account for was what to do when the prophecies inevitably fail. To the surprise of almost no one, after it was announced that the suspected leaker of Sydney’s case numbers was caught, the People’s Premier’s COVID-19 prediction for 22 July was disconfirmed by Berejiklian. In a press release published to Instagram, the antipope railed against his adversary on Macquarie Street, stating that the number provided was fabricated to “discredit [his] mathematical genius” — with the disclaimer that the statement is for “comedic purposes only.” But any remaining morsel of humour salvageable from Kairouz evaporated when he stood on the steps of Town Hall and called for “freedom” through a megaphone at the anti-lockdown rally where someone allegedly punched a horse. The People’s Premier was fined $1,000 for partaking in the illegal gathering.

With Scorpio ascendant, the moon in Taurus, and Kairouz out of the picture, Berejiklian announced NSW recorded another 207 cases of COVID-19. When queried about when to expect the easing of lockdown, the premier replied that she wished she had a crystal ball, before disclosing that she, unfortunately, didn’t possess the ability to predict the future (a sentiment she also conveyed two weeks earlier).

So, if our experts are too cheap to drop $16.95 on a crystallomancy set, what does the future hold for our Anxiety Age and its profiteering prophets? Eyes glazed from watching another 45-minute barrage of bad news, I stared down into my teacup and studied the sediment clumped together in the shape of a reindeer leaping over a fence. I’ll let you know what it all means when this is over.

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