Personal Pan-demic

Dean Cain, Kristy Swanson, and Edgar Allan Poe

The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were incidents of half an hour.

Anyone read any good epidemiology stories lately?

The above passage is of course from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and thankfully that’s the only paragraph that’s even remotely relatable to the current world health gun barrel down which we all find ourselves currently staring.

But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.

Oh wait.

Oh fuck.

They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

Whenever a politician or a lobbyist or a cable news correspondent uses the word “choice” in regard to healthcare, this is the logical endpoint of what they mean. Healthcare industry profits are worth more to these people than your life is, and you get to choose how to deal with that valuation. You can choose to financially decimate yourself in the event you or a loved one falls ill or has an accident, or you can choose to die. They’re not telling you to die. It’s your choice.

Personally, I’m excited to find out exactly how much these people think an “affordable” vaccine should cost. It’s gonna be like that time I decided not to buy any of the books my professors assigned in college because I realized I only had enough money to either complete the assigned reading or eat, but not both. Just like that, only instead of missing out on Studs Terkel and Introductory Philosophy, I’m going to contract a life-threatening respiratory illness.

In this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes were scarlet -- a deep blood color… In the western or back chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

It was within this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. It pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang...At each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and while the chimes of the clock yet rang it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then...there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

It occurred to me when I saw the above article being shared last week that it wouldn’t really have been the virus itself that the markets would fear. It would have been a lot more accurate to say (a) that this fucking idiot cut CDC funding and eliminated the NSC post dedicated to managing pandemics, (b) that healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are organized crime rackets that routinely prevent even the people who can afford their insurance premiums from seeking care because it’s too expensive, and (c) that service industry and food preparation jobs pay so little and offer such negligible sick leave and paid time off that infected employees have no choice but to continue to show up to work and touch everyone’s food, and that the combined fear generated by these reasons is what would actually tank the markets. I guess this is mostly an academic distinction once the coughing starts, though. Six of one kind of over-the-counter cold medicine pill, half a dozen of the other.

How comforting, then, to hear that our federal government is now taking the pandemic threat seriously enough that it’s in the hands of the guy who caused an AIDS epidemic when he cut health services as Governor of Indiana and was writing op-eds as recently as 2000 in which he argued that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. Good thing he doesn’t already have a demonstrable history of downplaying or outright denying critical public health issues, or we’d all really be in trouble.

It was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for color and effects. He disregarded the "decora" of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure he was not.

The replies to this tweet are almost uniformly critical of the President’s priorities in the middle of a potential viral pandemic, but I have to admit this is the only aspect of this story I can really wrap my head around. If I was the one who had cut public health and emergency management funding just before the rise of a terrifying virus, and then the New York Times reported that my general incompetence and stinginess led to untrained, ill-equipped Health and Human Services employees probably doing more to spread the virus than treat it, I’d want to say “fuck it” and go hang out with some movie stars, too. Except in his case, all the real movie stars think he’s a piece of shit, even the lifelong conservative movie stars, so the best he can do is hang out with Dean Cain and Kristy Swanson. It’d be kinda funny, if exactly this empty sucking dependence on validation from F-level celebrity wasn’t a big part of what got us all into this mess in the first place.

He had directed, in great part, the movable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fete; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. 

There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.

At this point in Poe’s story, Prince Prospero and his revelers are upset when they notice a mysterious figure among them, a proto-edgelord who dressed for the masquerade as a “stiffened corpse” covered in the specks of expectorated blood that mark the afflicted. But this is where my carefully supported extended metaphor falls apart, because Prospero actively chases the figure through the castle after taking offense at the costume, whereas I cannot imagine our bloated pigfuck President doing any running in any castle, except for maybe a White Castle.

Prospero dies instantly upon confronting the figure, and when the other revelers rush in and grab the mystery guest they’re left holding a torn and empty costume, “untenanted by any tangible form,” before they all die as well. 

The costume is empty because a global pandemic is not a villain. You can’t call in an airstrike on it. You can’t lead a crowd in a “Lock Covid-19 Up” chant at a rally. You can’t send hitmen to strangle it to death in its Manhattan prison cell and make it look like a suicide. All you can do is try to ensure that everyone for whom you are responsible, regardless of their income or political affiliation, lives with comfort and dignity and receives the care they need. 

No wonder he transparently doesn’t give a shit.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.