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Let's ignore so many facts that make the recent US intelligence report worthless, and instead briefly examine a German novella written in 1912 by a young Thomas Mann. Jan Sandvik / EyeEm / GETTY IMAGES

We have left the denial phase of the pandemic and entered the blame phase.

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This transition was made apparent by an article in Bloomberg that says something that's not new to those who are up on things: China "concealed extent of virus outbreak."

Amazingly, this conclusion was only recently reached by US intelligence. The Bloomberg article, however, offers few details, and fails to mention that, when the US intelligence community was under the retired Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire, it provided top government officials with a sober assessment of the danger posed by the novel coronavirus. Maguire, however, was fired in February for ringing the alarm about the return of Russian interference in the 2020 election. He was replaced by a Trump loyalist, and former US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell.

CNN:

Citing US officials familiar with the agencies' reports and warnings, the Post reported that intelligence agencies depicted the nature and global spread of the virus and China's apparent downplaying of its severity, as well as the potential need for government measures to contain it — while Trump opted to dismiss or simply not address their seriousness.

Let's ignore so many facts that make the recent US intelligence report worthless (such as, the fact that it was widely known that China wasn't transparent about the outbreak, that Senators sold stock after being briefed about the virus in January, or that the Ranking Member of Senate Health Committee Patty Murray issued a press release in January about how the virus was "an emerging public health threat," or even the famous Chinese whistleblower, Li Wenliang, who died on February 7), and instead briefly examine a German novella published in 1912 by a young Thomas Mann: Death in Venice.

In this work, we will find an explanation for why Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US (in short, the West) only responded to the pandemic when the game was up.


This tweet by the too-prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates is wrong. What's happening in Venice today, and also on the beaches of Florida, is exactly what happens in Death in Venice. The story, which can be read in a few hours, is about a 50-year-old accomplished German homme de lettres, Gustav von Aschenbach, who, after walking by a cemetery, decides to take a break from his city, Munich, and work routines. He ends up in Venice; he meets a beautiful young boy at his hotel; he becomes obsessed with the boy's beauty; he follows the boy, who is a member of an aristocratic Polish family, around the ancient city; he pays the final price for his obsession. That's the skeleton of the story.

What's important for our COVID-19 times is what kills Aschenbach (a cholera outbreak), and how it kills him (the Italian authorities hide the outbreak from the public). There are, however, several signs that something really bad is going down in Venice. Newspapers from other parts of Europe disappear, hotel guests in the know begin to leave, the streets are regularly disinfected, and there's something unhealthy about the air (this detail is drawn from the 19th century's obsession with malignant clouds, miasmas, and all of that sort pre-germ theory nonsense). But poor Aschenbach, who cannot really be compared to the most famous fictional pedophile, Lolita's Humbert Humbert (the former never commits a crime), is so struck by the "perfectly beautiful" boy, his zahir, in the Borgesian sense ("...beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad"), that he fails to read these signs until it's too late.

In the novella's fourth and closing movement, Aschenbach learns from an Englishman in "an English travel agency at St Mark's Square" that the official version of the "public health situation" is false. What's really happening is this, emphasis mine:

Born in the sultry swamps of the Ganges delta, ascended with the mephitic odor of that unrestrained and unfit wasteland, that wilderness avoided by men, in the bamboo thickets of which the tiger is crouching, the epidemic had spread to Hindustan, to China, to Afghanistan and Persia and even to Moscow. But while Europe was fearing the specter might make its entrance over land, it had appeared in several Mediterranean ports, spread by Syrian traders, had arrived in Toulon, Malaga, Palermo, and Naples, also in Calabria and Apulia. The North seemed to have been spared. But in May of that year, the horrible vibrios were discovered in the emaciated and blackened bodies of a sailor and of a greengrocer. The deaths were kept secret. But after a week it had been ten, twenty or thirty victims, and in different quarters. An Austrian man had died in his hometown under unambiguous circumstances, after he had vacationed for a few days in Venice and so the first rumors of the malady appeared in German newspapers. The officials of Venice responded that the public health situation had never been better and ordered the necessary measures to fight the disease. But the foodstuffs had probably been infected. Meat, vegetables and milk contributed to more deaths and the tepid water of the canals was particularly to blame. It seemed as if the disease had become more contagious and virulent. Cases of recovery were rare; eighty of a hundred infected persons died in the most horrible fashion, because the malady came in the particularly severe form called "dry cholera". Here the body was unable to even get rid of the water that came from the blood vessels.

Within a few hours the afflicted person dried up and suffocated on his viscid blood amid spasms and croaky cries of pain. Comparatively lucky were those who, after a slight feeling of nauseousness fell into a deep blackout, from which they mostly did not come to again. In early June the quarantine barracks of the hospital had been filling silently, in the two orphanages there was no longer enough room, and a horrific traffic developed between the city and San Michele, the cemetery island. But the fear of general damage, regard for the recently opened exhibition of paintings in the municipal gardens, for the enormous financial losses that threatened the tourist industry in case of a panic, had more impact in the city than love of truth and observation of international agreements; it made feasible the official policy of secrecy and denial. The highest medical official had resigned, filled with indignation, and had been replaced with a more docile person. The
people were aware of that; and the corruption at the top together with the reigning uncertainty, the state of emergency caused by the suffering all around, caused a certain demoralization, an encouragement of unsavory antisocial tendencies, which took form as debauchery, wantonness and a rise of criminal behavior. Against the
normal rule, many drunken men were noticeable in the evenings; vile rabble made the streets unsafe in the night; robbery and even murder happened again and again, for two times it had already proven that supposed victims of the epidemic had in reality been killed by their relatives with poison; and prostitution became more obtrusive and excessive, in a way that was normally more associated with the South of the country or the Orient.

The section ends with this:

Finally the Englishman came to the most important thing. "You would be well advised," he concluded, "to leave today rather than tomorrow. The quarantine cannot be further away than a few days at best." — "I thank you," Aschenbach said and left the office.
Aschenbach does not follow the Englishman's advice and, two or so days later, dies watching his zahir from a beach chair.

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But the important thing here is Mann's description of the official Italian response to "Indian cholera." It's almost identical with the US's response to the "China virus": the denial, the downplaying, the brazen disinformation.

We would be mistaken to read this similarity as merely accidental. What happens in the novella and is happening now in the White House are expressions of something that's deep and socially structural. That something is, of course, capitalism (which was pretty advanced at the time the novella was written) and its one directive: keep the economy going and growing no matter what.

This directive has serious staying power. The public is told, again and again, that everything is under control until it is obvious to all that it's not. But this moment of truth, however, only appears when the dead have their day. “When you see 100,000 [dead] people, that’s a minimum number,” said Trump on March 31.

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