You may not know it yet, but you’re sick now, too. When a country’s leader tests positive for Covid-19, roughly 100 percent of the population contracts a secondary, opportunistic infection. Symptoms may vary from mild to severe, and differ according to political affiliation. But everyone may develop some excitement at the news, which seems simultaneously the most human and inhumane of reactions. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst political enemy.
I was once like you. Last April, my country’s leader Boris Johnson was admitted to the hospital with Covid-19, a few miles from my home. My heart rate quickened. It was a Sunday night, which is a morbid time of the week in the best of circumstances. Johnson had first been diagnosed at home on Mar. 26; and then on Apr. 3, the Friday before his admittance, he’d released a short video announcing that he still had a fever and would extend his self-isolation. He’d had the open-shirt of the new casual, working-from-home times. But did he look clammy? Was his breath catching a little? Is that a blueness around the lips? Here’s another common symptom of your secondary, citizens’ infection: You turn into a medico-detective. As I write (I’m in Canada at the moment) I can hear CNN coming from the next room. A commentator is calling for objective data, not assurances from a White House official. “I would really like to know about his oxygen saturation,” she is saying.
Another sign is a sense of unreality. Be strict with yourself and limit fanciful thinking. A prime minister or president’s succumbing to plague has a fable-like quality, owing to all the gigantic nouns involved. This fictional feeling also stems, in part, from the fact that our leaders are major authors in the national story of pandemic. When they fall ill, it comes off as meta-narrative, an ironic device, rather than sober, rational life. Johnson’s illness seemed like an escalation of the pandemic’s severity, even though it wasn’t. You might begin to think that logical repercussions of behaviour are ‘plot twists.’ Despite knowing of the dangers, Johnson boasted about shaking hands with “everybody” at a hospital with known Covid patients. Cause and effect isn’t the same thing as irony. I had to remind myself that I was living in an epidemiological reality, not the disaster story of a pandemic that was building to some sensational climax.
Two days after morbid Sunday, Johnson was transferred to intensive care. At this point, one’s own symptoms, too, ratcheted up their intensity. I remember feeling frightened, both for Johnson and for my own decency. I began to ask myself feverish, dead-end questions about the nature of sympathy. What does it even mean to ‘wish people well’? My post-recovery advice is to try to ignore such pointless loops. When the whole country is crammed into the waiting room, you’re going to get a shadow pandemic of bad faith. This predicament, this feeling that you should pity someone whose wielding of power you may well despise, isn’t your fault. It’s a measly glitch in the political system, having to think about the ailing body of the head of state. If only they could just be a head, sustained by an outlandish machine, like Krang in Ninja Turtles. You may hate a leader’s voice; you may hate his signature. But what have a leader’s pulmonary alveoli ever done to you?
On that note, prepare yourself for the leader’s belly to be on everyone’s mind. I remember when Nancy Pelosi expressed her shady concern for Trump’s health during May’s hydroxychloroquine scandal, questioning whether someone of his age and weight (“morbidly obese, they say”) should be self-medicating with unregulated substances. When Johnson was in intensive care, it was tempting to teleport yourself to the foot of his hospital bed to flip through his chart. Weight, we’d been told, was a risk factor. Was Johnson fat, in the pathological sense? His former communications director Will Walden assured the British public that Johnson was “far fitter than he looks.” Try not to become too much of a BMI know-it-all.
People inevitably tire of having the leader’s body laid out on the table, subject to public scrutiny. Ghoulish speculation on prognosis is soon displaced onto the less queasy question of whether there will be a transfer of power. The crucial issue of who is in charge has a respectable, hygienic pragmatism. When Johnson was moved to intensive care, Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, devoted their analysis to chains of command. Here, Americans are on slightly steadier ground. British succession is less cut-and-dried than the established default to Vice-President. After Johnson first tested positive, the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was chosen as his ‘designated survivor’ and when Johnson went to hospital Raab was said to be ‘deputising’ for the Prime Minister. But there were rows over this decision. It should have been Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster! I gather that there are comparable legal questions as to whether Pelosi, as third in line, is constitutionally able to become president. People will take turns holding the Constitution up to the light, like an X-ray, if only to distract themselves from thoughts of a wheezing, struggling body.