Lessons from The Red Death (Updated)
On September 28. 2014 the Ebola Virus presented a threat to the world and looked like it would be a pandemic but proper steps were taken to expel the virus from America, although Africa has continued to see periodic infections. That was the first time I wrote about Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, written in another time. It seems even more relevant now.
The Ebola virus seemed like a nightmare – a modern nightmare that connected back to a past that we have read about but have never really experienced (although the polio epidemic gave us a taste). The descriptions of Ebola, its symptoms and its deadly effects, its spread, the seeming inevitability that it could spread further and cost more and more lives; the threat that it would decimate families, cities, and even countries brings to mind that awful word “plague” which we relate to the Middle Ages, before people knew about microscopic creatures called germs. Reading about the plague in history books gave us the information, the bare facts, but movies and fiction have given us the true horrors of the plague; of living with the nearly sure knowledge that every day could be your last.
When a family member sickened with plague-like symptoms did you dare care for them as people normally care for people they love when they are ill? If you took the dare, did what you felt was your duty as a human being anyway because your love or your conscience was too strong to walk away, did you resign yourself to death in order to do your sick room tasks properly?
Now we have a much more deeply concerning novel coronavirus which we have labeled COVID19 in case we have to differentiate it from future viruses. This particular virus came out of Asia and subsequently out of Europe. Africa has been spared much of the spread this time around, unlike with Ebola where Africa was hit hard.
I remember reading The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe, whose stories, while beyond dark, always feature some of our most human weaknesses. In this particular story the nobles, upon learning that a plague known as The Red Death (because people died bleeding) was nearing their neighborhood, provisioned a walled castle as if for a siege and they held a continuous masked ball while The Red Death raged around them. Little did they know that The Red Death was already in there with them; one of the masked guests, spreading toxins while they all danced. When the plague passed by and the villagers opened the castle everyone inside was dead.
This hits very close to home. The White House was supposed to be the safe castle to which the rich and powerful retreated. Rather than hold a continuous masked ball, which in this case might have protected everyone, these privileged people decided to forgo the masks that science recommended. These people do not live in medieval times. They live in the age of science and technology, the twenty-first century. But the highest power in the land does not believe science knows more than his own judgement, which is based on, as far as we can tell, nothing. This is not the plague and we assume that all these folks will not end up dead. Will they end up chastened and ready to treat the virus that is still raging by backing the doctors and scientists, or will they still make wearing the best protection, a mask, a protest statement about liberty, the freedom to get sick and possibly die? Ordinary citizens do not have access to the treatments the President of the land has been given. Their health care may not cover all of the treatments they receive if they get really sick. If you can’t hide in the castle, (whoops, the White House) where can you hide?
There is still a message for us in this medieval tale. Isolation could be dangerous although social distancing is helpful. If we turn America into one big castle and we all party away and ignore what happens elsewhere something will zap us and we will not see it coming. In this case our leaders did see it coming but chose to “downplay” it and we see how well that has worked. Heeding our humanitarian good angel might seem counter-intuitive, but it also might be the correct path to take. We obviously wish that three tough objectives could be met immediately 1) get that medicine that seems so promising approved, manufactured, and delivered really fast, 2) bring the rest of the nations on our planet up to modern standards of cleanliness, preparedness, and awareness of ways to combat contagion from any source – plant, insect, animal, or human 3) end poverty (that Global Initiative to End Poverty is looking pretty good right now, isn’t it).
We are certainly a ways from meeting all three of these objectives, but this is probably not yet the “big one”, the global pandemic that could kill off an enormous percentage of the world’s population, although this is a bit too close for comfort. And if you are thinking that “culling the herd” might be a good thing, remember that any one of us, even you, could be in the group that is afflicted and dies.
Hopefully if we can learn to stop epidemics while they are relatively small we can avoid ever having to face the disease that brings the true ‘Global Pandemic’, the threat we thought we had left back in the Middle Ages. Our 45 th President, now in the hospital with the virus he pooh-poohed, did not make any of the correct moves that would have lessened the effects of this virus. It affected too many people and brought our whole society to a standstill. We need to do better against this virus. Perhaps we need to take the steps that will help us stop future infections in their tracks out of the hands of those who run the risk of being drunk on power. There needs to be a health agency that can even override a President, although that will also have its risks. Are we so flawed that we contain the true seeds of our own demise?