Our Version of Plague Maddened Villagers

Trump supporters assault black protester at April 2016 rally


A recent New Yorker podcast interview with an Iraqi doctor in rural Georgia revealed an irony that may soon be blowing up in the face of Donald Trump supporters: the president’s attacks on immigrants and his attacks on the Affordable Care Act could strip rural areas of both doctors and access to affordable healthcare. The situation reminded me of a plot development in Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, a novel about the 1666 plague.

Dr. Ali Fadhil, a former translator for American troops and, until recently, an internist in Suwanee, Georgia told executive editor Dorothy Wickenden that his patients failed to see how Trump’s policies would adversely affect their lives. Many rural physicians, he noted, are immigrants, while repeal of the Affordable Care Act would lead to many deaths. Fadhil talked to his patients about how, while his own salary would rise with the ending of the ACA, so would patient costs. Few took him seriously.

Fadhil also told of his children being harassed on the school bus, especially following Trump’s election, prompting the family to relocate to California. He is taking a significant financial hit to do so.

In Year of Wonders, villagers who are maddened by the plague turn on two midwives that they believe are responsible. Although these women have expertly delivered their children, the townspeople have become hysterical. I cite the scene to show mob psychology at work:

There were ten or twelve people in a rough circle, jostling and staggering, their loud voices slurring as if they’d come straight from the Miner’s Tavern. Lib Hancock was among them, stumbling from the effects of drink, which I knew well she was not used to. In the center, upon the ground, was Mem Gowdie, her frail old arms bound before her with a length of fraying rope. Brad Hamilton knelt across her chest as his daughter, Faith, grasped a fistful of the old woman’s sparse silver hair and raked her cheek with a hawthorn prick. “I’ll have it yet, witch!” she cried, as Mem moaned and tried to raise her bound hands to her face to fend off the blows. “Your blood will drive this sickness from my mother’s body.” In the circle, Hamilton’s oldest boy, Jude, held his mother in his arms. Rubbing her hand over Mem’s scratched and bleeding cheek, Faith stood up unsteadily and smeared the blood on her mother’s neck, where the Plague sore rose throbbing.

I was running toward them, skidding and sliding down the steep side of the clough, the loose stones clattering around me, when Mary Hadfield broke from the throng and flung herself down beside poor Mem, pushing her face, all twisted with rage, within inches of the old woman’s. “You killed my family, hag!” Mem writhed, trying to shake her head in denial. “I heard you curse us for bringing the physician to Edward! I heard you as you left my door! Your malice has brought Plague on my man and my mother and my boys!”

Without midwives, village births become far less safe and fatalities begin to climb. The villagers don’t realize what they had until it’s gone.

Not facing a plague, Trump supporters have far less excuse. They have allowed themselves to be whipped into hysteria by a conman, unscrupulous politicians, and a feckless rightwing media. Only now are people beginning to realize what repealing Obamacare will entail, and if Trump begins carrying through on his deportation pledges, their standard of living will take a further hit.

They sure had a lot of fun venting, however.

Further note: The interview with Dr. Fadhil had a personal aspect as my youngest son and his family currently live in Suwanee, Georgia. If they stay there, my three granddaughters, girls of color (their mother is Trinidadian), will be riding those school buses. They will have to deal with America’s continuing racism and ethnocentrism.

And yet a further note: One of my colleagues, reference librarian Pamela Mann, pointed out an even closer parallel with the novel: when Texas managed to close down many rural Planned Parenthood centers, infant mortality rates, already unacceptably high in the United States, spiked. Ideology trumps life.

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