Imagine there’s a world being haunted by a terrible, killer virus, that breeds in human bodies, circulates on their breath, lurks in areas where people are crushed together, lingers invisibly on surfaces. (Easy so far?)
It used to be such a beautiful world, didn’t it? The best world there has ever been. That’s right, isn’t it?
Will the virus change that?
I’m afraid the setup isn’t very original. It’s part of a series that has been running for more decades than you remember – you’ll doubtless have seen it. Something by the same author anyway. Let me remind you.
On the surface of this country there are the overpeople. They are good people, living decent lives. They go to work, to school, to church. They have dreams, aspirations, friends, families. They love their phones and computers, their cars and churches and leisure centres. They do good works. They live in homes that look like this. (OK, well maybe not always quite so smart, let’s be realistic: a coat of paint required perhaps, the sofa more frayed, but pretty much like this at least).
But somewhere else there are also the underpeople. The bad people. It’s a trope of dystopian fiction – the people below the surface, the frightening people, living in sewers or underground somewhere. They are bad people, condemned, outcasts. Where they live it looks like this.
And now the virus comes along and threatens the order of the world.
Of course, this is going to be a story about how the overpeople and the underpeople share the same world, as the virus stalks it. About the different fates that await the overpeople and the underpeople when the virus hits them. About the tensions, about the struggles.
The overpeople retreat to their homes to hide from it. They are frightened for their lives. They are frightened for their children. They keep everything very clean – a lot of soap comes into this story, and sanitiser and masks and paper tissues. They can’t go to their churches and gyms and leisure centres. Some of them can’t go to work. They feel pretty much imprisoned – they feel these privations deeply. (They Tweet about it quite a lot.)
The underpeople are also frightened, but their lives go on, pretty much unchanged. They were imprisoned already. They don’t have churches to lose, or gyms or leisure centres or cars. There is nothing they can do to keep themselves clean. They don’t have masks or tissues or probably even soap. A lot of them don’t have access to a shower. Some of them don’t have water. When they get ill, there won’t be more than a gesture from doctors, nurses, medical equipment. So now the underpeople, too, are very frightened of the virus coming. For their own survival. For what it will do to the world. But they don’t tweet about it. They aren’t allowed to do anything like that.
Since this is just a story, lets call this place the Disunited State of The World. (The edition I’m reading is about Mississippi, USA: other editions are available).
It got a bit worse, this week, when I got to the chapter where the overpeople go and look at the underpeople’s world, and write all about it. It turns out that they do this once a year, even when there isn’t a virus stalking the world. (This is a little mini series, just for Mississippi, all on its own. The latest one is particularly frightening. The link to it on the website doesn’t work – I guess the report is too long and dark to get into my ordinary home on an ordinary internet connection – this may be a metaphor. But some mischievous overperson has broken it up and reproduced it here, so you can read it anyway, if you want to.)
The overpeople always find the same things and they write it all down. Their reports look like this.
This is part of the list from the latest report, June 2019, which ran to 34 pages. It listed more than a thousand failings – toilets that don’t work, cells without lights or mattresses or pillows or power or water; broken sinks, mold on walls, windows filthy with birds nests; dangerous wiring; kitchens with vermin, filth, broken equipment. Then at the end it has more than a hundred pages of pictures that look like this.
So the overpeople definitely know how the underpeople live. They have paid Good Money for the reports to be written. They have sent the reports to Important Committees, where their Very Best People have looked at them and probably tutted quite a bit. So they know, right now, as the virus spreads out across this world, that the underpeople have no chance.
Before the virus, they were planning to do something about it. No, seriously, they were – really. They’d been meaning to for years. They’d made promises, told newspapers, updated their Wikipedia pages to make it look like it already happened. They are good people, they certainly had a plan. They had almost, before the virus tragically closed down their House and Senate, passed legislation that might have helped. And now, with the virus hitting, they’ve issued some reassurance – a few more restrictions for the underpeople, though really business as usual. They don’t want the overpeople too worried about this.
So this is the chapter where everyone is waiting, holding their breath, looking around. Everyone knows that when it hits the underpeople, in the terrible environment in which they have to live, it’s going to hit them hard.
Somewhere, as you read this, there’s a man who hasn’t seen daylight in months, looking out of a door. He’s a bit smelly. He hasn’t had access to a shower for a while. The sink and toilet in his room are broken. He did something very bad a long time ago. He’s frightened.
Just beyond the moldy wall beside his bed, there’s another man coughing. He’s asked to see a doctor but the doctor doesn’t come. He is feverish. He needs to lie down. He hasn’t got a mattress. He can’t breathe. He’s struggling to the window but it’s full of filth and it doesn’t open anyway.
In the last few months, even without the deadly virus, 21 of the underpeople have simply been found dead in their cells.
Perhaps (aren’t we pretending this is fiction after all?) someone from the overpeople, even in these frightening times, will do something about it, now, in the nick of time.
Or maybe they won’t. There’s a siren voice whispering to the overpeople. The underpeople aren’t at all nice. All of them did something bad, all of them. Does it really matter if the virus kills them? (Shhhh, don’t write this down, but wouldn’t that make the world a bit nicer, actually?) And anyway, what can we do? We’ve got our own children to look after, our bathrooms to keep clean.
I don’t know how this story ends: I haven’t finished reading it. Some days I’m scared to read on.
Who’s writing the story anyway?
Please have a say in how this dark story ends. Call the king of some country or other.
If you live in Mississippi his name is Governor Tate Reeves, and you could call him on this number: 844 899 9540. (If you live elsewhere in the Disunited State of the World, you will have your own edition of this dark tale to deal with. Google a bit. Call whatever king you have.)
Governor Reeves has powers at his disposal: it’s not quite too late yet. A lot of the underpeople could simply be released. Those who have never done anything violent perhaps. Those who did violent things, but enough decades ago that that it could be time for mercy. They could go home, and be a little safer, like the overpeople are. If he did that, the others might stand more of a chance. Try asking this king to do some of the following:
- Exercise clemency powers to release all vulnerable people (older people, those with chronic illnesses, pregnant people, those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, etc).
- Move the rest of the incarcerated population to a more humane facility and ensure that all men have access to food, clean water, suitable sleeping conditions, COVID-19 testing and treatment, adequate health care, and at least one hour of outside time;
- Conduct a full and independent investigation into the deaths of all incarcerated men, and
- Begin a formal process to reduce incarceration in Mississippi and shut down Parchman Prison for good.
Or you could call a Senator or a Representative and pass on the same message. If you live in the United States, you could can find their details here. Or maybe you are a Senator or a Representative, reading this now. Surely YOU could something?
But I know. We are all busy. We have our bathrooms to keep clean.
Like I said. This is very dark chapter.
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