By Angela Vullo
Oct 11, 2020–On February 2 of this year I penned an article quoting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” an analogy more ominously appropriate now than at the time.
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.
At the time of the article, COVID deaths were already piling up in China and Europe, but the menacing virus had not yet come to the United States in full force.
However, deaths in the U.S. were mounting from a different cause, “deaths of despair.” My article cited new reports from the end of January, indicating that opioid deaths were on the rise again. I wrote: “Not since the 1918 Spanish flu, when U.S. life expectancy dropped by 12 years, and 675,000 deaths occurred, has American life been so threatened.” As there was not yet an adequate response from the President or Congress to these deaths, the article called for emergency action to be taken.
My call went unheeded, and instead we got a reckless disregard for human life, emanating from the White House on down.
The COVID Threat
Bob Woodward has now exposed the truth that the President was warned on January 28, 2020 of the deadly nature of the virus. He was told by his national security team that, “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.” The President’s response to the warnings was to downplay it, saying, “I don’t want to create panic.” This failed reaction by the President has created the opposite effect. Instead of calming the American people, it has spread fear and contagion.
Now, nine months after these warnings, with the flu season upon us, where do we stand? We have over 210,000 U.S. deaths due to COVID, and the President himself, and much of the White House staff are infected. Some of the major media, acknowledging the magnitude of this crisis, are even quoting from the famous Poe short story which I referenced above.
There are still attempts to debunk the deadliness of the virus, with claims that the deaths being attributed to COVID are caused by other diseases. But a look at the number of “excess deaths” since the virus arrived reveals a grim reality. Excess deaths are the number of people dying above the average yearly figure. Epidemiologists have calculated that U.S. excess deaths have been well over the deaths being blamed on COVID over the course of this year, hitting the range of 260,000 or more.
Some of these deaths may be indirect effects of the COVID crisis, and the crisis measures taken to contain the coronavirus, others to the inadequate funding of, and access to, the health system overall. But it is more than likely that COVID deaths have been undercounted, as people have died before being able to be diagnosed.
More to the point: Aren’t these hundreds of thousands of deaths an indictment of our failure as a society to protect the vulnerable? Do we no longer value human life?
It’s Not Too Late
More of the population are admitting that the President is culpable, and that he “knew or should have known” that the virus was deadly, but did nothing adequate to the seriousness of the situation. States were largely left on their own to outbid each other for PPE. Funds to sustain vital public services were not made available, and support for common-sense, medically-advised public health measures was, and still is, spotty and begrudging. But, just to admit that the President is wrong is not enough.
We have lived through nine months of hell. The handwriting on THAT wall cannot be changed.
Now is not the time to stand by and wait for the clock to run out, in the hopes that things will change on their own. This crisis affords us the opportunity for a change in direction, but only if we act. Just as FDR acknowledged upon ascending to the presidency, “We need action now.”
There is a movement building across the nation for positive change. Many elected officials, labor leaders, and grass roots organizations are joining in support of legislation which offers a concrete plan. H.R. 6422 lays the basis for a transformative economic policy, one that would actually sustain human life. Instituting a $4 trillion National Infrastructure Bank would constitute the leading edge of a gigantic Franklin Roosevelt-style industrial development policy for the nation. As FDR’s New Deal and WWII economic mobilization brought out the best in us, so now a similar kind of economic mobilization would also rescue the nation. In the process we will not only conquer COVID-19 with “made in America” health care technologies and desperately needed infrastructure, but we will create the wherewithal to combat future infections.
It’s up to us. We must define now what we want the future to look like, for the next 100 days, the next year, and the years beyond. We are at the point of decision; we can choose the path to doom, as did the degenerate aristocrats in the Masque of the Red Death; or we can take the road to progress. That road was last trod by President Kennedy, who walked in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt. We must build on their example, and create a new recovery, one of which our children and their children can be proud.
 Columns citing Poe’s story have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the blog decider.com, and the Washington Post.
Tags: Angela Vullo, COVID, death, Edgar Allan Poe, National Infrastructure Bank, Red Death
Please mention the damage done due to deregulation. … Did not Reagan defund public health clinics? My social work sister (retired) saw first hand the effect of Reagan era when mental health clinics released mentally ill into the streets. Public health was quite strong at one time, and many doctors and nurses entered their professions to work in public health. I do not hear, read, or see much inertia these days in public health. Seems to me everything is skewed in favor of privatizing hospitals, including county and regional hospitals previously run as non-profit. Blue Cross Blue Shield was previously non-profit.
You are right that the 70s became a riot of deregulation, and also cuts in vital infrastructure spending. Investment in public health, and in infrastructure like clean water and public hospitals, were vital in improving Americans’ life spans and quality of life, and we have gone backwards. These are the real issues which should be dominating public discussion, and unfortunately, are not. I deal with the role of infrastructure in particular in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street.