America’s two pandemics

On an increasingly sickly planet, our future, in other words, remains up for grabs.

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Image Credit: Vithun Khamsong/Getty Images

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.) 

In a way, in these last two years, so many of us have felt almost Robinson Crusoe-like, stranded on our own islands in the middle of a hell on Earth.  We are, it seems, whatever our ages, the Covid generation, living either in painful isolation or in shoulder-to-shoulder danger of the scariest kind. But here’s the even stranger thing: Defoe and his compatriots suffered only one terrifying illness, the bubonic plague, known in earlier years as the Black Death for the black sores or “buboes” it caused on necks, in armpits, and in the groin. 

To my mind, there is one thing that makes us different. We’ve been suffering through not one, but two plagues or pandemics in this country. Anyone in a Defoe-like mood would, I suspect, have to write two journals of the plague years to cover this painfully all-American moment of ours. 

In one, as in Defoe, a spreading, shape-shifting disease would be our common enemy.  After all — and we may be anything but done — COVID-19 in all its variants has so far killed, by my rough estimate, one of every 300 Americans and, according to the New York Times, one of every 100 of us who is 65 or older. Though the official figure for deaths stands at a staggering 886,000 Americans and continues to rise by a couple of thousand a day, the real total is undoubtedly well over a million by now, in itself a stunning disaster. 

And yet, in this same period, we’ve been living through another kind of pandemic as well.  Think of it as a rabid political pandemic also ravaging the country and, worse yet, using the first pandemic as a kind of growth hormone. 

Pandemic two

Here’s the strange thing: Covid-19 has gotten in the way of so much that matters in our individual lives — from school to socializing to making a living — and yet, all too bizarrely, it’s changed so little that mattered, politically speaking, especially to the Trumpian part of America. Yes, sometimes it’s shut down much and shut off much else. Yet, ravaged by illness, the political world has, if anything, revved up in a remarkably disastrous fashion. 

And for that, you can’t only blame the Republicans or the Trumpists among them.  After all, it’s eerily true at the international level as well, with the Biden administration acting as if, in the midst of both that global pandemic and a round of unprecedented climate-change disasters, we were still on an all-too-familiar Cold War planet.  The crisis in Ukraine?  Honestly, you’d think we were back in the literal Cold War and that no pandemic had ever hit this world, as the Biden administration threatens to send more U.S. troops, ships, and planes to the very edges of the Soviet Union… whoops, sorry, I meant Vladimir Putin’s Russia. No matter that we’re no longer talking about possible war in distant Afghanistan or even Iraq, but in the European heartland and between nuclear-armed powers still being devastated by a disease whose ability to slaughter has, in this country, left the casualties of the Civil War in the dust of history.

Of course, after a fashion, we’ve experienced something like this before. To put this aspect of our lives in perspective, it’s worth remembering that, in a world long after Daniel Defoe’s but significantly earlier than ours, parts of humanity fought their way through the end of World War I undaunted by the great influenza, the pandemic of that moment, then sweeping the planet. It got its name, the “Spanish Flu,” ironically enough, from a country in Europe that remained neutral during that disastrous conflict and so was the first not to experience the plague, but to openly publish information about it which would, in the end, kill an estimated 50 million people worldwide!

Meanwhile, the America that delivered con man and bankuptee Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 has seemingly only been energized by the Covid disaster. So, think of the ongoing Trumpian movement as this country’s second pandemic. After all, the Republicans of the Trump era and their “base” seem all too ready to rather literally tear this country apart. That, over these last two years, has meant among other things fighting anyone who might try to deal in a reasonable fashion with the first pandemic (even, in an armed and dangerous fashion, with the governor of Michigan in response to her Covid lockdown measures).

From unmasking to refusing to be vaccinated, from ignoring social distancing to denouncing vaccine mandates, Trumpian America has taken up the pandemic as its issue du jour and run madly (and I do mean madly) with it, often followed by significant parts of the population. And mind you, it’s no happenstance that, during these Covid years, gun sales in this country, already high, soared to record levels, while gun violence seemed to reach pandemic heights all its own.  Meanwhile, in the White House was a president who himself was a Covid superspreader, a leader who, on returning from a Covid-19 hospital stay, proudly ripped his mask off on a White House balcony. Meanwhile, increasingly armed right-wing militias and white nationalist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Boys are seeking to speed the way to a societal collapse.

Politically, as became clear indeed on January 6, 2021, our second pandemic has only continued to grow ever fiercer, ravaging this country in its own fashion. After all, in the wake of that striking attempt by militia members, white nationalists, and Trumpian supporters to destroy the U.S. Capitol (and most of those inside it), polls suggest that ever more Republicans have come to believe violence is a reasonable means, if not the only one, to make this country their own. Wild talk of everything from insurrection to civil war has only grown as the Republican Party in these years increasingly became, both in Congress and outside it, a cult of no. 

Are more variants on the way?

And here’s the strangest thing of all, our two pandemics continue to mix and match ever more deeply and bizarrely at ever more levels.  In the process, they’ve fed voraciously off each other.  To see the way Covid-19 has all-too-literally fed off Trumpian America, you only have to check out the death rates in areas that voted for The Donald in 2020 versus those that voted for Joe Biden. On average, they’re almost three times as high. Worse yet, in the Trumpiest — that is, reddest — parts of the country, that figure is nearly six times as high. Keep in mind that we’re talking about dead Americans here. And in that context, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that, among Democrats, vaccination rates are far higher than among Republicans. Duh! 

Meanwhile, on pandemic-related issues ranging from masking to social distancing, misinformation about Covid-19 to violent opposition to vaccine mandates, the second pandemic, the Trumpian one, has fed off the first in its own version of infecting America. The new Republican Party, its legislators and governors, have come to rely on issues like forbidding mask mandates in schools or vaccine mandates in businesses (or simply refusing to wear masks at all), while opposing almost any kind of shutdown vis-a-vis the pandemic to gain strength. And their power has increasingly been built on acts meant to enhance the lethal effects of Covid-19, which means that functionally they’ve been murderers. In other words, when it comes to the Republican Party and ever more of its followers, we’re talking about a violent cult of no that seems intent on taking this country apart at the seams. 

In that context, there’s one obvious question to ask about either of the pandemics plaguing the United States right now: Do new variants lurk in our future?  When it comes to Covid-19, we simply don’t know if omicron will sweep everything else away and, like the Spanish flu, become a milder ongoing endemic disease. Unfortunately, on a planet where the inhabitants of significant regions are still remarkably unvaccinated, the spawning of deadly new variants remains a real possibility and living in an ongoing pandemic world remains an all-too-conceivable future reality. 

If only one could hope that the equivalent of the first option above was a significant possibility for our other pandemic — that it might recede into the national woodwork, becoming an endemic but relatively minor strain of American politics. However, there, as well, new variants seem all too imaginable. Of course, the present strain of it, whose heartland now lies in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, remains remarkably alive and well, heading into the elections of 2022 and 2024. It’s true that an aging Donald Trump, already booed at one of his own rallies last year for his position on vaccines, could end up ceding or losing election ground to a fiercer, younger version of himself like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or some other variant we have yet to see. 

All of this remains unknown. The only thing we can be sure of right now is that we live in an America ever more divided and devastated by those two pandemics. On an increasingly sickly planet, our future, in other words, remains up for grabs.

Copyright 2022 Tom Engelhardt.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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