Drowning with our money belts: Putting profits before people in time of crisis
Fighting against the flooded Yangtze River, c. 1200.

Think back with me to your first books and the stories you were told as a child. For many children all over the world, fables form the core of their early narratives. These short stories with deep lessons use allegory to teach children about themselves and the human social world they are growing into. When reading fables as an adult, it is striking to see how insightful these deceptively “simple” stories can be!

There is an old fable from Tang dynasty China (ca. 600-900 CE) about a city by a river where everyone knew how to swim. One day, the river became stormy and overturned a boat containing a group from the city. Being good swimmers, each person calmly focused on swimming to the shore. Looking back, they saw one man swimming very slowly and began cheering on their friend to swim with more determination, lest he drown in the dangerous rapids.

People on the shore were confused: The man who was struggling the most was known to be the best swimmer in the village, so why was he struggling now? One shouted to him, asking why he was so slow in getting out of the river. “I have a thousand coins in a money belt tied around my waist,” the man shouted back.

“Why don’t you throw them away and save yourself?” his friends cried. But the man shook his head and continued his slow, laborious swim.

Quite worried, his friends asked, “What good is money when you are drowning?” Once again, the man shook his head, then slowly disappeared under the water and drowned. [A version of this popular story appears in Chinese Ancient Fables (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981) and is attributed to the Tang dynasty politician and poet Liu Zongyuan (773-819)].

When hearing this fable, it should be obvious how misplaced the man’s priorities were and how pointlessly he drowned. He died for nothing, not realizing that his life and his friends on the shore were the true reason for getting out of the river. It should have been the money bag sinking to the bottom of the river, not his lifeless body.

As obvious as the lesson of the fable is, our government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the United States to be not much wiser than the man in the river. The news this week of President Trump’s halting funding to the “China-centric” World Health Organization was contested by many, but not unexpected. As early as April 7, the president suggested the move, urging an investigation into WHO-China relations. He also claimed “total authority” over the states, dictating when they must lift their stay-at-home orders and other preventative measures, all in the name of boosting and normalizing the economy.

This sentiment is shared by the now-infamous Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick who was willing to sacrifice himself and other senior citizens for the economy. Despite knowing that immediate action is needed when it comes to ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), private companies and the federal government continue to swim slowly toward the shore, while our friends around the world stand amazed at our inability to meet even the most basic needs of our hospitals and health care professionals. As profits are put before the interests—and the basic health—of the American people, we can feel that money bag being pulled down under the rapids of the raging river around us.

As long as the United States holds on to its money bags, the nation will drown. On the shore will stand the countries that have prioritized equipment distribution, invested in social democratic policies like universal healthcare, and are dedicated to protecting, rather than endangering, the lives of all classes.

But while the government and private companies hold on to their money bags, the working people of America have been opening theirs. For many, this crisis has led to a reevaluation of priorities, and there have been some inspiring stories coming out of the situation. Recent news stories have highlighted the sharp contrast between profit-centered failures like those described above and optimistic people-centered actions, whether it is the mass effort to support our postal system, the volunteering of skills and labor to manufacture PPE, and the founding of mutual aid groups and organizing of rent strikes.

As inspiring as these stories are, collective action in the time of coronavirus does not simply arise from a feel-good drive for charity but rather is necessitated by a dire situation worsened by the inadequacy of our elected officials and government agencies. Though the government is prepared to drown, Americans are not. Instead, it has been left to citizens’ collective action to pick up the pieces of a failed profit-driven system.

Revisiting the wisdom of fables is not nostalgia for childhood; perhaps, instead, it is the imperative self-critical practice that will reconnect us to the wisdom we possessed as children. The story of the swimmer has survived from the Tang dynasty and came down to this moment carrying with it the weight of centuries of experience. A fable is an invitation to pause, consider its allegory, then measure it against lived experience. Glancing at the United States today, it’s all there: The turbulent river and the promise of shore, the heavier and heavier money bag, and one foolish man who needlessly drowns in his stubbornness.

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Brandon James O’Neil
Brandon James O’Neil

Brandon James O'Neil is a New-York based poet, scholar, and graduate student.