The real fiction
Since US President Donald Trump announced that he and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19, the weekend has been an odd time for reflection about karma, schadenfreude, and hubris. Anyone with an appreciation for irony might well note the fact that recently Trump mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask, only to come down with COVID-19 days later. One wonders if the US President has the self-awareness to think back to the times when he not only downplayed the severity of the pandemic, but also spread so much fake news about masks, disinfectants, hydroxychloroquine, and the like, while ignoring social distancing. Already I have seen two writers likening the situation to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” The analogy is too tempting to resist. In the story, a Prince Prospero tries to hide from a plague, the Red Death, that has struck his unnamed country, by retiring to an abbey, surrounding himself with comforts and luxuries while the plague ravages the common folk. “No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous,” the story begins, and when half the country’s people are struck down with illness, the Prince is described as remaining “happy and dauntless and sagacious” as he hides himself away, wanting for nothing. “The external world could take care of itself,” the story goes; “in the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think.” It is a story of hubris and tragedy. In the end, despite taking every precaution and despite all the privileges of wealth and power, he and his courtiers perish by the hand of Death himself, who has come to the abbey in the guise of a plague victim.
The parallels are almost too perfect. The fact that Trump has politicized everything about COVID-19, up to and including wearing masks, before falling victim to the disease itself, is the stuff of Greek tragedies. Since Trump’s Twitter announcement, social media has been rife with debate: What fallout can Americans expect? What is the state of his health? Is this truth or a political move, coming as it does right before the US presidential election? Is it acceptable to wish misfortune on a public figure who has himself been responsible for death, suffering, poverty, and misinformation?
What a curious experience to watch the United States now grapple with a game that Filipinos have been playing for months: We have spent far longer wondering about the health of our own head of state, contemplating too if COVID-19 touching our President’s life personally would change anything about the callous neglect in our pandemic response. Yet, if Boris Johnson’s and Jair Bolsonaro’s experiences with COVID-19 are anything to go by, it probably won’t.
Anyone catching the coronavirus is a tragedy. But the biggest tragedy of all is this: That Trump, and all of the despots all over the world who have minimized, ignored, mocked, or worsened the scale of this contagion, might become infected—but that they are likely to fare far better than the average citizen who fears death, illness, and the catastrophic expense of getting a serious case of COVID-19. Already we have seen the photos of the lavish presidential suite at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where Trump was admitted. Contrast the crystal chandeliers, top of the line medical equipment, and carpeted floors with the lines of people who, even in the throes of serious illness, are unable to afford medical care and who die without a doctor’s attention, ending up in body bags rather than plush ICUs.
Rather than a satisfying story about arrogance and falling from great heights, our circumstances change Prospero’s story to one of privilege, cushioning Prospero and his ilk from the worst effects of the red plague. Rather than debating if it’s ethical or unethical to wish misfortune on a world leader, I would argue that it’s futile. Trump, like other COVID-19-positive world leaders before him and leaders who will be infected after him, will likely recover hale and hearty, saved by the best in science and medical care which he himself has mocked, belittled, or distorted, while the rest of us are ravaged by twin plagues of hunger and illness. If our own President were to fall ill, the outcome might well be similar. The real fiction is not Edgar Allan Poe’s imaginings, but the idea of equitable, appropriate, and accessible health care.
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