The Boy Who Cried “Poison Gas in the Coal Mine!”

Things are bad right now, we all know it.  If it was only this relentless pathogen we were up against, we’d be up against it.   Of course, it’s much worse than that.  The inhabitable earth, our natural world, is also in immediate and irreparable jeopardy, as demagogic strong men around the world ignore the approaching catastrophe, appealing to unifying ethnic and racial hatreds instead.

My mother, when I was a hyperbolic young boy (I got that poetic trait from her) used to warn me about being The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  She told me the story of the scaredy-cat shepherd boy who would yell “WOLF!” whenever he was scared.  The men from the village would come running with axes.  After a while the village just started ignoring his cries and, of course, one night, real wolves came and ate him and all of the sheep.

Then there is Kurt Vonnegut’s “canary in the coal mine,” a bird that (in human form) can also cry wolf, I suppose.    Vonnegut said that artistic types, being more attuned to and easily distracted by odd smells than most people, were society’s canaries in the coal mine. Miners used to carry these small birds into the mine shafts in cages.   The birds have tiny lungs, which would quickly fill with any odorless poisonous gas the miners might have accidentally tapped into.   When the canary fell off its perch, dead, it was time for the miners to quickly get out of the mine.   Writers and sensitive types, according to Vonnegut, serve this same warning purpose for society at large.

I felt like one of these tiny-lunged bastards the last few days, not that I am a writer or a sensitive type, officially.   If I hadn’t had the call from the doctor, I’d have never learned my health insurance had been cancelled weeks earlier.   Apparently no law requires more than… nothing.   Once my immediate problem (no health insurance during a pandemic) was solved, I found I could breathe again.  I now only need to hold my breath until May 1, assuming no other hidden hassle lies in wait for me.

AND I AM ONE OF THE VERY LUCKY ONES.  I know this very well.   My feet never touch the ground, I am carried gently from place to place and set down carefully on soft, clean pillows.   I am loved and cared for, like a beloved pet.   I realize this and am very thankful for it.   I don’t know why I keep thinking about the millions and millions who are perpetually doomed to unthinkably grim fates.  

What about those millions of Americans who lost jobs recently — along with employer-based health insurance —  with no chance for affordable health insurance during a public health emergency?   Some, with savings,  can rely on the expensive, aptly named COBRA, but, seriously, your best hope for comfort, while unemployed in America during a world-wide plague, is COBRA?

The chaotic federal administration’s bungled response to this massive public health crisis illustrates the need for strong laws to protect programs that protect lives.   The human right to health care, for example, because it’s a human right, should be guaranteed by the government of the richest nation in human history to all of its citizens, so that none need fear death due to insufficient income.   And so forth.  

Instead, taking this crisis in the sense of the Chinese ideogram that also, famously (and probably falsely) means “opportunity,” long-sought radical right-wing programs that benefit the very wealthiest and most unprincipled are jammed through the moment the time is right — while we are all in terror for our lives.  No need for the EPA regulations, fuck Nixon and the Commie horse he rode in on! Protecting the “environment” like a bunch of tree hugging pansies!  Drop dead, job killers!   And so on, and so on, and scooby-dooby-doo-yeah.

Being summarily thrown off health insurance, particularly during a plague, is objectively terrifying and infuriating.  It should not happen to anyone.   Odd to say, my overheated, anguished screams of the last few days, before I heeded sensible advice and checked the website of the public agency that provides my health insurance, are as alien to me now as the last chirp of countless dead canaries who, having served, are forgotten, as all flesh must eventually be.   I feel a bit abashed to have been the canary boy who cried “DEATH!!!” during the plague when it was his own easily fixable error (even if he got no reminder to fix it) that tried to come back and kill him.  What a cry baby!


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