President Patient Zero

We’re not unreasonable, no one’s going to eat your eyes.

Photo by Chris Hall on Unsplash

The TV shows Veep and House of Cards used to be my escape from reality. Depending on my mood I could either have a zany comedy or a dark Shakespearean drama. Until Kevin Spacey ruined it. (It’s okay though, because Robin Wright is still just delicious). Both of these shows ran from about Obama’s second term to somewhere in the middle of Trump’s (hopefully only) term of office.

And therein lies the problem.

House of Cards didn’t really experience a jarring tonal shift because it was already a vitamin D deficient Shakespearean drama dedicated to the malevolent machinations of a pair of heartless antiheros, but Veep really did. Veep started out with Selina Meyer playing a selfish and spoiled plutocrat, but one who despite her narcissistic tendencies still cared for the environment and her daughter. Season one opens with her trying to replace plastic utensils with biodegradable ones in order to ease in her environmental policy and when Catherine is introduced Selina is embarrassed that she hasn’t spent enough time with her, but seems to genuinely want to be her mom.

Contrast this with her portrayal in the last season where she trades environmental legislation for convention votes, sells out her daughter and her grandson, and capitalizes on a combination of white supremacy and foreign interference to win the election narrowly escaping being on trial at the Hague. It’s a huge departure, and it’s contextually dependant.

But the reason Veep went off the rails is because the writers tried to keep the show relevant. During the Obama Presidency it was unthinkable for a politician at Selina Meyer’s level to — for example — dismiss a political opponent as not really American owing only to his ethnicity. It happened — largely to Obama himself — but not really in the mainstream. Racial attacks in politics were supposed to be extremist. But with the Trump movement, minority though it always was, open and intentional attacks on people’s ethnic or racial backgrounds are no longer shocking.

Little known fact: this title sequence was actually not colour-corrected and was taken at noon on a summer day in 2017.

As Trump started lifting plot lines from House of Cards and Veep the former persisted because its writers simply ignored him and the latter floundered by trying to match him. Both shows have aired their finales and for better or worse mark the cultural zeitgeist that allowed a populist with authoritarian impulses to gain power, but their finales meant the TV President had to look elsewhere for policy ideas and political strategy.

So naturally, he chose zombie movies.

Now, this is not actually all that weird. Zombies have been used to describe a fear of “mindless mob rule,” whereas monsters like vampires tap into fears of, well, “elitist bloodsuckers.” So okay cool.

Except usually it’s entertainers and storytellers using those metaphors to explore generalized anxiety felt in society as a whole rather than the head of the government trying to recreate the horror on the very society he supposedly controls.

If I’m being totally fair, this wasn’t Donald’s plan. He’s not this smart and speaking of braaaaaains I think something already ate his. (Although, unlike the Phantom I don’t think it was syphilis so much as prions. Or maybe he’s just always been really dumb.) But I do think the pandemic is unfolding a lot like a zombie movie as understood by a buffoon.

This is cases per capita as reported by the New York Times.

Let’s just be totally frank here, we were going to have some casualties from this pandemic. The virus — and of COURSE it’s a virus: that’s both literarily appropriate and scientifically predictable — is highly contagious and does have a relatively high rate of either causing or triggering adverse reactions that can lead to chronic health issues, permanent disability, or death. No matter what we were going to have a few infections and possibly even a few deaths from this thing no matter what.

In the US at time of writing there are 217,867 Americans who have died from this. By the time you read this more will be dead.

The vast majority of these deaths could have been prevented if only Donald Trump had responded to this in a rational and compassionate manner. If he had used the vast resources at his disposal specifically curated and put in place by his predecessor nearly 218 thousand American families would not have lost someone dear to them.

This is cases reported by country from the World Health Organization.

But I’m actually not here to stress the deaths. I’m here for the living. At present the number of Americans who have been reported as having had COVID-19 is 8 million and rapidly rising. That’s about 2.4% of the population. And that doesn’t seem bad right? Until you look at Germany or really just about any other nation. But let’s go with Germany right now because it’s lead by a girl with girl cooties. Germany, per the WHO, has had some 348,557 cases and with a population of 83 million that comes to 0.4% of the population.

Hmmmm.

Yummy, autumnal, Pumpkin Spice COVID. (Photo by Magda Fou on Unsplash)

The other reason I bring up specifically Germany is that cases are expected to rise in the autumnal and winter months and there have already been spikes worldwide. But again according to the WHO there’s different modes of transmission.

The three modes of transmission are sporadic cases, clusters of cases, and community transmission. Strictly speaking — and I only say this because I have an actual doctorate in a thing which relates to this wider thing and I am now contractually required to be pedantic — those aren’t really “modes of transmission.” But whatever, let’s move on before my autism strikes again. What they’re basically trying to say with this is where cases of COVID-19 arise you can have the best case scenario where they’re just a handful of people or one or two that you can just isolate, treat, and prevent from infecting others (sporadic). In a less great scenario but still pretty good case you can have sort of mini-outbreaks here and there and you just contact trace those people, isolate, treat, and prevent from infecting others (cluster). And then there’s community transmission which … it basically means, “trust no one.”

You can make all the Black Forest Tort Law jokes you want, but Germany is a relatively urban country. With something as contagious as COVID-19 it is an absolute feat to the German people and government that they kept the infection rate that low. But, while I doff my cap to Germany in that regard, this also shows that low transmission and infection rates are possible in a country with high population density and a high degree of freedom of movement.

There is actual law protecting Black Forest Cake in Germany and I really want to tell you it’s tort law, but that cake would be a lie.

The problem the United States especially faces is that despite everything great and amazing about America we do not have the infrastructure to deal with a full-blown pandemic. We could have prevented this if, oh, I don’t know, a certain bottled blonde with a penchant for hot sauce and history’s most impressive resume, were President. But no, we couldn’t have her for our leader because she buttered her mails or something. Who even knows anymore. Maybe it was for her perceived dislike of cookies?

My point is that American COVID-19 cases are now so ubiquitous that Americans simply are not safe conducting their daily lives, and will not be safe until a working vaccine is shown to be both effective and safe and then delivered and administered to probably about 95% of the population. That’s roughly 311,790,000 people. Oh, and by the way I realize that leaves some 16.4 million people BUT a.) roughly 10 million Americans are immunocompromised and therefore cannot have really any vaccine, and b.) I based my guestimate off the level of immunization needed to prevent community transmission of measles because that one’s also super contagious, but I get the impression COVID-19 is more easily transmittable.

After Trump himself got the virus and came shuffling back, grey faced and dead eyed, to the White House, the same suggested that Americans should just wait for herd immunity to kick in and Oh. My. God. That’s not how that works. If you really want to know all about vaccines and immunity I wrote a thing on it in sections with citations to scientific articles and law. I’m not going to get into it here except to say that once again, herd immunity for something like this only triggers at around 95% exposure, and that means that all the rates for permanent disability, chronic illness, and death would apply, but they’d apply to 328.2 million people.

So okay. Let’s sit our butts down and figure this out. The CFR for COVID-19 in the United States according to this data is somewhere around 2.2% to 2.7%. So if we need 95% of a population of 328.2 million people to be infected that’s 311.8 million total of which about 2.5% will likely die so about 8.2 million total dead. That should scare you.

Now, I had a much easier time finding the CFR than rates for debilitation because COVID-19 hasn’t really been around long enough for this to emerge, but there’s some indication that as many as 80% of those infected continue to struggle. In the study cited they’re talking about acute cases and “long COVID,” which we do not know yet whether or not it’s permanent. So if we say that about 20% of all COVID-19 cases are acute (requiring hospitalization) and we’ll drop that rate of debilitation to 60% just for fun that’s still 37.4 million people. That is about 11.5% of the American population. Even if we drop the rate of debilitation down to 20% which is closer to the rate of permanent heart complications for SARS victims that’s still 12.5 million people or 4% of the population.

Soooo to give you an idea of what that means in more human terms I’m a natural redhead. Redheads make up about 5% of the population. We’re super rare. But you probably personally know a redhead. If we are forced to go along with the Trump administration “plan,” for COVID-19 then you’re going to personally know not just a handful of people for whom COVID is going to be permanent, but you’ll probably lose friends and family to it.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, let me either redeem your sense of hope or make it worse. My current favourite zombie movie is Train to Busan. I love it. There’s a few super Korean moments in there that are just so epically Korean it hurts, but for the most part it is just superb. And the reason it’s superb is because it’s not just about scary zombies and an out of control pandemic. Like Night of the Living Dead aka the OG of the zombie movie it is a story about the problems in society less than about the monsters themselves.

Honestly, the body requirements for stewardesses are just insane.

The horror isn’t just zombie only wants to eat your brains, the horror is how the various characters react to the threat, to each other, to losing close friends and family, and the uncertainty of knowing what’s next. The character arcs and how the characters relate to one another is absolute genius. It’s also got this wonderful claustrophobic imagery and everything about it is from a story-telling perspective just superb.

And guys … not to spoil it or anything but it ends ambiguously. We don’t know if the last survivors actually escaped the zombie virus, we don’t know if they’ll be shot dead by the military awaiting them on the other end and we don’t know if they’ll be able to patch their lives back together or if Busan’s about to be infected and overrun itself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved the senior pathologist zombie in World War Z (the movie). That was wonderfully creepy. But World War Z ends with catharsis. World War Z does have really amazing counter-culture characters and has a really interesting take on mortality and morbidity, but it’s clearly science fiction horror as opposed to social commentary horror.

We’re in the dark tunnel from Train to Busan right now. We’ve been through something truly dark and our future is uncertain. Things could go really wrong still. But, without spoiling it, in the tunnel one of the characters does something at the encouragement of another character that I really believe means that they’re going to live. It’s still not certain. The soldiers might just decide it’s still too risky to let them live, but the metaphors of the story are about overcoming selfishness and rage and being able to nurture radical empathy.

I actually genuinely think we’re going to make it. I genuinely believe Trump’s going to lose this election and once he’s gone Americans can start rebuilding our nation and undoing the damage he’s done. The people he’s caused to die are gone and we may never be able to cure those with long term effects. But we can take common sense measures to slow the spread of the virus and survive to create a safe and effective vaccine.

Be careful, be considerate, and be compassionate.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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