Guest columnist Phil Wilson: The four horsemen of the apocalypse

  • Paint samples collected by students from the Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield, taken from the Williams House in Goshen as part of a school project. file photo

Published: 8/3/2022 4:03:19 PM
Modified: 8/3/2022 4:00:10 PM

For almost the whole pandemic I have been keeping a COVID diary. Initially, I worried that I would tire of scrutinizing COVID from a limited, personal perspective. I am vaccinated, boosted, and have never gotten sick. I am always double masked in public, and yet almost every day I write something about COVID — a random reflection, a response to a medical journal piece, or something barely related to COVID at all. Sometimes it seems that everything is about COVID and COVID is about everything else.

Recently, while out for a run, a question raced into my head and I came to a dead halt. If COVID is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, who are the other three? I had never before thought about the four horsemen and cannot say why this image popped up out of nowhere — this is an obscure biblical reference that might also be a nice name for a metal band — but I have often quite casually described COVID as an apocalypse in my diary.

Of course, climate change and nuclear war immediately had to be at the top of the list. That was too easy, but I needed one more. There are four horsemen, not three. Fascism seemed like a good bet but, nah, fascism is the purview of dreary bureaucrats ruminating over rules and the punishments for breaking them. Ultimately, as both Hannah Arendt and Franz Kafka observed, fascism manifests ritualized banality. Little men strutting and flexing are more funny than apocalyptic.

Tossing aside the Bible and the horsemen, what do I mean by apocalypse? I am excluding both gigantic meteors from space and annihilating volcanism, like the Siberian Traps that are believed to have initiated the Permian extinction.

To line up with COVID, a worthy apocalypse must have a human origin and be ushered along by societal folly. Traits like self-deception, indifference, rationalization and cruelty are the bare minimum for an event to qualify as a worthy apocalypse. The profit motive is an absolutely essential cornerstone — the sort of thing that inspired meat packing authorities to send unprotected workers into COVID hellholes, or the conviction that sustained oil company profiteers who continued to add lead to gasoline for a half century after scientists had proven the risks. The end of leaded gasoline required nothing less than federal legislation signed into law by (would you believe) Richard Nixon.

Could that be fourth horseman — lead (lead poisoning, lead exposure, lead toxicity)?! Lead, fierce and relentless, permeates the underbelly of American history. Lead might even be imagined as COVID’s older sibling — the family features (the nose, the eyes) are uncanny. A 2018 study in The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected and widely read medical journals, determined that over 400,000 U.S. residents die yearly from lead exposure. That is the sort of number that we associate with COVID, and both kill softly, plucking a disproportionate number of victims from society’s most invisible margins.

The lead apocalypse has achieved such a subtle and understated public image that it can carry out a genocidal scope of destruction with barely a whisper of media reflection. Lead, like COVID, ravages almost every organ system in the human body, and both apocalypses share, in addition to increased risk of mortality over time, a particular enmity toward the mind. Lead lowers IQ, impairs focus, ruins impulse control and conjures unstable moods — almost exactly pioneering many of the destructive trends now observed in Long COVID patients.

After the banning of leaded gasoline, a huge drop in violent crime followed. Exposing children to urban concentrations of lead proved to be more socially consequential than experts had realized. Now, we have new and unprecedented spikes in violent crime, but no media pundits have made the connection linking COVID brain injuries and violence. Investigative reporter Yvette Cabrera wrote about a lead-to-prison pipeline. Is there now a COVID-to-prison pipeline?

Lead and COVID are the only scourges that effect hundreds of millions of Americans with medical, behavioral, and epic social consequences, and there are vast swathes of the U.S. population being double teamed by both. The COVID pandemic has decimated the prison population at a rate four times that of the unincarcerated. This population is disproportionately comprised of people who came of age in areas of high lead concentrations from antiquated infrastructure and the remnants of toxic fumes that have settled into the soil.

So what happens to people with brain damage from lead, when an illness understood to lower cognitive capacity, diminish memory and limit impulse control further batters their brain? What happens when a tree falls on your head, and, still dazed, you subsequently wander into an avalanche?

I wonder if the horsemen of the apocalypse have the ability to consider that they are gathering sentient beings in a context that is so disproportionate as to be almost meaningless? Both COVID and lead have powers that evoke visions of tidal waves and megaton bombs. Do the horseman ever pause to measure themselves against the bits of dust that they sweep away? Do they even understand that America has no universal health care?

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker living in Northampton
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