How America's Two Pandemics MergedRoundup
tags: pandemic, COVID-19
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.
Imagine that you were experiencing all of this (and by this, I mean our lives right now) as if it were a novel, à la Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The famed author of Robinson Crusoe — Defoe claimed it had been written by the fictional Crusoe himself — was five years old in 1665. That was when a year-long visitation of the bubonic plague decimated London. It probably killed more than 100,000 of that city’s residents or 15% of its population. As for Defoe, he published his “journal” in 1722, 57 years later. He wrote it, however, as if he (or his unidentified protagonist) had recorded events as they were happening in the way that all of us, whatever our ages, have been witnessing the ravages of the many variants of Covid-19 in our own all-too-dismantled lives.
Still, give Defoe credit. As a grown-up, he may not have lived through the worst version of a plague to hit that capital city since the Black Death of 1348. He did, however, capture much that, four centuries later, will seem unnervingly familiar to us, living as we are in a country savaged by a pandemic all our own. We can only hope that, 57 years from now, on a calmer planet, some twenty-first-century version of Defoe will turn our disaster into a memorable work of fiction (not that Louise Erdrich hasn’t already taken a shot at it in her new novel, The Sentence). Sadly, given so much that’s happening right now from the mad confrontation over Ukraine to the inability to stop this world from heating to the boiling point, that calmer future planet seems unlikely indeed.
Call me a masochist, but at 77, in relative isolation in New York City as the omicron variant of Covid-19 ran wild — hitting a peak here of 50,000 cases a day — I read Defoe’s novel. All too much of it seemed eerily familiar: stores shutting down, nightlife curtailed, people locked in their houses, others looking desperately to none-too-wise figures for any explanation but a reasonable one about what was happening to them. And so it went then and so it’s largely gone now.
I mean, a passage like this one on the way so many Londoners reacted to the plague should still ring a bell, no?
“…[N]ow led by their fright to extremes of folly… they ran to conjurers and witches, and all sorts of deceivers to know what should become of them (who fed their fears, and kept them always alarmed and awake on purpose to delude them and pick their pockets)… running after quacks and montebanks… for medicines and remedies; storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection.”
Hey, in our time, from key figures on the right we’ve heard far too much about what Defoe referred to, so many centuries ago and all too ironically, as “infallible preventive pills against the plague.” After all, our previous president recommended that Americans use the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19. (“‘I think people should [take hydroxychloroquine],’ he told reporters at a White House press briefing on Saturday. ‘If it were me, in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it… I have to ask my doctors about that. But I may take it.'”) Similarly, Fox News and various Republicans continued to plug the use of the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin, normally given to livestock, as a miracle cure. (Neither of those drugs was anything of the sort, of course.)
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