As the coronavirus pandemic paralyses the world and continues its ravages, I’m reminded of the great French novelist, Albert Camus. In La Peste, (The Plague) Camus ends the novel (1947) by saying: “The plague never dies or disappears for good; it lies dormant for years and years in furniture, and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and perhaps the day would come again when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it will rouse up its rats again and send them to die in a happy city.”
When the scourge of the plague ends and Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of the novel, listens to the jubilation of the townsfolk, he knows such joy is always imperiled. “…this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory. It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts,” he says.
Camus believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues “are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man”.
This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life.
To write his novel, Camus went through the history of plagues: the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century, the Italian plague of 1630 that killed 280,000 across Milan, Lombardy and Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern coast during the 18th and 19th centuries.
He also read Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ (1722) and Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ (1827).
Today, while the governments all over the world are battling against the pandemic, and we all are hoping to defeat this invisible enemy, Camus’s novel reminds us: “There’s no heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. This may seem ridiculous, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.” And by decency, he means “doing one’s job”.
Camus wrote: “We all inside us have plague because no one in the world, no one, is immune …and if there is one thing one can always yearn for, it is human love.”
Will the Trump government take a lesson from Camus? Will it stop the blame game and behave with ‘decency’ and realize the need to love ‘fellow damned humans’ to protect the planet.
The coronavirus doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, white or black, famous or infamous, royal or commoner. It has leveled off discrimination and treated everyone as equals in a world of brutal inequality and inhuman disparity. It has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of human beings, the futility of our aspirations, insufferable conceit and the inevitability of suffering.
With the body counts in the US crossing 85,000, the virus has exposed how the richest country of the world collapsed within weeks after the outbreak exploded. The US must now realize, however wealthy they are, they are powerless and vulnerable to this pandemic like any other country in the world.
Unfortunately, the US President isn’t willing to accept the fact that the pandemic can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.
Bill Gates in a recent interview has said it’s not the time for finger-pointing as that won’t help and will only prolong the crisis. Time has come to close ranks and work together for global solidarity to combat the contagion.
The revolutionary musician, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, said: “We can only move forward and save this fragile planet that we call home if we co-operate with one another, rather than fight one another.”
Eminent Jewish historian Yuval Noah Harari says: “We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity. Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?”
The ongoing calamity must open our eyes to how much life has changed in a blink of an eye and how challenging, both intellectually and emotionally, it will be for us to go forward. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We’re entering a new world, a new era.
Nobel laureate Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (who’s been writing a new novel called ‘Nights of Plague’) says: “Much of the literature of plague and contagious diseases presents the carelessness, incompetence and selfishness of those in power as the sole instigator of the fury of the masses. But the best writers, such as Defoe and Camus, allowed their readers a glimpse at something other than politics lying beneath the wave of popular fury, something intrinsic to the human condition….
“For a better world to emerge after this pandemic, we must embrace and nourish the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the current moment.”