Andreja Brulc's Blog

Day 0 [3 March 2020]: 13 Days before COVID-19 Lockdown: Albert Camus/The Plague/Human Behaviour [an extract from the diary]

Posted in Books, Covid-19/Lockdown Diary by andrejabrulc on 03/03/2020

There have been many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. […] When a war breaks out people say: ‘It won’t last, it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on, as people would notice if they were not always thinking about themselves. In this respect, the citizens of Oran were like the rest of the world, they thought about themselves, in other words, they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end, humanists first of all because they have not prepared themselves. – Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

When the Covid-19 was starting to come closer and closer to ‘home’ – as the epicentre moved from China to Italy in February – I must admit I started to panic! As of today – when I read this interesting article on Italy’s response to the coronavirus, titled “Epidemics Reveal the Truth About the Societies They Hit”, written by Anne Applebaum, and published in The Atlantic yesterday – the coronavirus is still being classified as an epidemic by the WHO [PS: the WHO declared it pandemic on 11 March]. Applebaum takes Albert Camus’s good and evil characters from The Plague and compares them to the current context of the coronavirus crisis:

‘A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream that will end,’ Albert Camus wrote in The Plague. This, of course, very much describes the current situation: Many people cannot bear the idea that something invisible can change their plans. Published in 1947, The Plague has often been read as an allegory, a book that is really about the occupation of France, say, or the human condition. But it’s also a very good book about plagues, and about how people react to them—a whole category of human behaviour that we have forgotten.

The novel – the image (above) of the cover from Vintage edition of 1991 – is believed, according to Wikipedia, to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population, a small town in Algeria, in 1849, following French colonization, but the novel is placed in France in the 1940s.

The Plague is considered as an existentialist classic, similar to Kafka’s work, in particular, The Trial, where “individual sentences have multiple meanings, the material often pointedly resonating as a stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition [Wikipedia].” Not only has The Plague been read as an allegorical treatment of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII, but also how the world deals with the philosophical notion of the Absurd.

Camus wrote the novel about everyday life under quarantine for the inhabitants of Oran. It takes the reader through various questions related to the nature of destiny and human conditions. The book is a perfect display of characters as ‘human types’ – from politicians to doctors and holidaymakers to fugitives – all showing the effects the plague has on their psychology and how they respond.

Villains – like a priest – exploit the uncertainty of the humanitarian crisis as a tool for manipulation to enforce through their ideological agenda, where, for instance, the priest uses the plaque to increase his flock. As Applebaum says: “He tells his congregation that the epidemic is God’s way of punishing unbelievers.” She adds: “In modern Italy, the first person to seek to manipulate the anxiety created by the coronavirus was Matteo Salvini, the Italian far-right leader who immediately called for the government to shut the country’s borders, stop all public meetings and keep people home.”

Heroes, on the other hand, are, however, not the kind of heroes – superheroes or role models one finds in other fiction or movies – but are the doctors and the volunteers who help them, or even, as Applebaum says: “a civil servant, Monsieur Grand, who seeks to deal with the plague by recording it, measuring it, and keeping track of what has happened: ‘This insignificant and self-effacing hero who had nothing to recommend him but a little goodness in his heart and apparently a ridiculous ideal. This would be to give the truth its due, to give the sum of two and two as four.’ Grand, Dr Rieux, and a few others try to use science, transparency, and accuracy to contain and control the disease and to save as many people as possible, without giving in to hysteria or despair: ‘It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency’.”

I agree with Applebaum, who adds:

These are the kinds of people who will be the heroes in our era, too. The scientists and public-health scholars who immediately put out information about numbers and cases; the research teams that immediately began to work on vaccines; the nurses and doctors who immediately decide to remain inside quarantined regions, as many did in Italy, as well as in Wuhan, China. Not all of their judgments will be correct, and they will not always agree with one another: There is no precise way to determine which quarantines and cancellations are prudent and which are unreasonable, given the potential economic effects on the one hand, and the real desire to slow the spread of the epidemic on the other. In Italy, there have already been a few public squabbles among virologists who have different estimates of how bad the disease will be. … But at least they have the public’s interest at heart.

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