The Masque Of Red Death, Revisited

Joan Donovan
Apr 11, 2020 · 4 min read

Trump wanted to reopen the country on Easter Sunday, but the virus has other plans.

By Joan Donovan, PhD, Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Every time President Trump tries to find a shortcut back to “normal”, I’m reminded of an old horror story, now a fable for our times.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque Of Red Death, Prince Prospero reigns from his remote abbey over a kingdom besieged by a terrible plague. Townsfolk who contracted the “red death” appeared to wear a mask, their faces stained red by the blood that oozed from their pores.

After months in luxurious seclusion, perhaps even bored by quarantine, the prince holds a magnificent masquerade party for the 1,000 nobles he let take refuge in his abbey.

As the big clock chimes each hour, the partygoers dance — until a figure appears dressed as a plague victim. Terror spreads through the crowd as the intruder moves from room to room, Poe writes, “And the rumour of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around… a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.”

Disrespected by this grotesque visage, the prince ordered its capture and execution, but no one moved. As the invader stepped menacingly passed the prince, again, no one stopped it. Aggravated by the inaction of his subjects, the prince gave chase with a dagger in tow. As the masked intruder entered a room shrouded in black curtains, it faced the prince, who fell to the floor dead instantly.

“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death,” Poe concludes, “held illimitable dominion over all.”

As we approach Easter, a religious holiday known for its pastel outfits and hidden mysteries, there are many lessons to learn from the fate of the arrogant prince: no government rules a virus; a virus does not yield at borders; and it does not respect timelines. Critically, the public must remain skeptical when we hear politicians offer up policies based on their own desire for control.

Again and again, Trump returns to Easter as an opportunity. Last weekend, in a task force briefing, Trump remarked that “maybe we could allow for special churches. Maybe we could talk about it. Maybe we could allow them, with great separation, outside on Easter Sunday.” Later he admitted that it would be risky, but continued to emphasize his slogan: “The cure can’t be worse than the problem itself.”

As an enemy, the red death and its modern incarnation takes no solid form and feels no injury. A government is not able to stop a virus with sheer force of will or “attack” it with a vengeance. Nor can a nation just close its ranks in this global economy. Even though the prince and his 1,000 guests were protected from trespassers, the prince still sought to rule his embattled state with simple defenses, all of which failed when he needed them. What can be learned from this? Border closures, travel restrictions, and sheltering-in-place only work when combined with other courses of action. Right now, those efforts must be coordinated so that we can save every life possible, which means the Federal government must serve a dual purpose of managing the health crisis and the economic disaster. Returning to normal is both idealistic and impossible.

Crucially, interventions must not fall along party lines, get stopped at the state line, or be conscribed to timelines. Instead of governors bidding against one another, the federal government should be sourcing critical supplies, distributing them to highly impacted areas, ensuring the elderly, poor, and sick have what they need to ride this out. Many governors and healthcare workers are flummoxed by the response of the federal government to provide resources quickly and efficiently.

For most of us the best we can do is shelter-in-place and wait, but for health professionals, medical researchers, and government officials they must collaborate across borders, nations, and politics. For Trump that should also mean listening to and valuing his medical advisors, who will tell us when it is safe to return to work, school, and our society.

In Poe’s tale, the red death’s costume was its human form, and its real deception was making humans believe it could be overpowered, just like all the other threats to the security of the kingdom. We can be assured that some will pass away because of our inability to put aside differences and see this virus for what it is; a once in a century cataclysm, like a volcanic eruption or a tsunami happening everywhere, all at once.

There is nothing heroic in opening up the country to another wave of infection knowing that we are ill equipped to care for one another. Even when there is a treatment, mass testing, enough personal protection gear, we still have more to do. This week, Trump referred to COVID-19 as the plague, “You read about this is in the old days. The plague, and that’s what it is,” but this is not the old days and we have capabilities no prior government has ever known. If we can not get it together to coordinate a mass response, how will historians remember this red death revisited?

In Poe’s tale, the resounding clock chime is a marker of our mortality. Time is only necessary for the living, reminding us that COVID-19 does not slow down unless we do.

Time In Pandemonium

dispatches from a place I never wanted to live

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