The Emperor’s New Medicine Chest


Once upon a time, two genius-swindlers tell the emperor of Usay that they can weave magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid. They wore masks but their faces had grown to fit into them. They are hired, and they set up looms and go to work. Four ministers arrive to inspect the operation. Each sees that the looms are empty but cannot admit to it for fear of being declared a fool.

When the ministers hold the review, they conclude that the weave is tight and nearly transparent and so fine that it can deceive the untrained eye. They declare that the cloth is perfect for the emperor.

The emperor arrives next and at first feels the looms are empty but as the geniuses mime through the motion of fitting the cloth, he thinks his first impression was wrong because his eyesight is weaker than he has ever acknowledged.

Finally, the geniuses announce that the suit is ready. They pretend to put it on the emperor who sets off in a procession before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the charade.

And then a child screams that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people realize that everyone has been fooled. The emperor, knowing that for someone in his position dignity is everything, continues the procession, walking as proudly as ever.

Later soldiers are sent to arrest the swindlers. But they have fled and they were not recognized for they were wearing new masks.


Many years pass and a new emperor sits on the throne. The empire is prosperous and other kingdoms are envious of how it has maintained pre-eminence amongst all the states of the world.

In the midst of the good times, a revolution to achieve perfect justice rears its head. It claims that the way teaching is done in schools and colleges helps one race over the others. The revolutionaries announce that not only people, but academic disciplines, like math, organic chemistry, and quantum mechanics, are racist.

The revolutionaries say they wish to free women from patriarchy. There is clamor to decouple gender from the sex at birth. People are expected to be devoted to fairness, and erase words like ‘mother’ and ‘woman’ from professional vocabulary. The replacements are: ‘birthing bodies’, ‘birthing people’, ‘menstruater’, ‘people who bleed’, and ‘chestfeeder’.

The word “lunatic” is banned for fear that it will be offensive to people living on the moon in the future.

They revolutionaries complain that there is privilege related to skin complexion, gender, and race. This is resolved by wearing masks and coverings that minimize the differences.

They argue that names from countries, communities or languages that were dominant in the past represent cultural advantage.

It is decided that old names will be replaced by numbers, or by 6 letter-long coded sequences in upper and lower case letters. Some complain that the unfactorability of primes may create a sense of superiority.

Finally, the name generator systems are programmed to leave out primes. The old names of the countries are replaced by two-letter code words. The empire is simply called US.


And then an epidemic strikes the world. There is palpable fear amongst the people, although the rich see business opportunity. Factories, schools, and even cities are shut down and one is not allowed to step out of house without permission of the state.

The emperor seeks advice from the council. An old minister, named #QwerPbu, who remembers the history of the empire, announces that he has a miraculous medicine that will cure the sick.

The emperor is grateful and gives him honors, precious jewels, and a yacht covered with gold.

The old minister has certain conditions: the medicine should be given to both the sick and those who are well. He demands that the sick be forbidden from using any other medicine and no one should be permitted to criticize this treatment.

He wants the schools to be closed.

He wants the cities to be locked down.

The emperor accedes to the conditions.

The minister sets up factories to produce the magic medicine. At first, people are told they need just one. Then they are told they need two, the second a few months after the first.

Then they are told they need three, and four. And perhaps, more.

At the end of nearly two years of the epidemic, the disease is still raging. But Asia and Africa have done far better compared to Europe and the Americas.

The empire (US) has 4% of the world’s population, but 15% of the world’s epidemic deaths.

Another kingdom, NI (with one-third the population of US) spent one-fifth per capita, with deaths that are one-tenth the empire’s.

The empire and NI both use the old minister’s medicine for the sick but NI also uses other drugs that are denied to the sick in the empire.

The poorer countries use herbs and other existing medicines for they cannot afford #QwerPbu’s concoction, and they have fared much better than the empire.


As the sickness spreads and people who have taken the old minister’s medicine continue to die, whispers about it begin to make rounds. Although #QwerPbu has the emperor’s word that no story criticizing the medicine be allowed, the underground is amplifying the whispers.

Some say the medicine might not be as good as claimed; others say that some people are dying of the medicine.

#QwerPbu says the science is with him and the medicine in his chest is simply the best, and if a few have died that is a price society has to pay for the larger good.

Others complain that the mortality in the poor nations is much lower and besides they haven’t used the magic medicine. Are they doing better in using herbs and off-label drugs?

These doubts make the old minister angry.

He responds that the data from no other nation is to be trusted, and any criticism of him is criticism of science.

He adds if the healthcare expenditures are low the country could not have kept track of all the deaths.

The minister explains the low mortality in NI by saying people there are disciplined and wear masks all the time.

Now he speaks of recommending not one, but several masks.

Someone suggests that people should be required to wear one mega-mask with slits for the eyes for the death rate in nations where people wear such covering is low.

The revolutionaries rejoice that the mega-mask will make it easier to solve the problem of privilege related to gender, race, and skin-color.

A great equestrian statue is installed at the Central Square of the Capital City with #QwerPbu heroically raising the sword skyward.


A deep fog descends on the empire.

The sun can barely be seen. The citizens are feeling suffocated.

Then someone gives a call for Freedom March.



सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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