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Lessons About COVID-19 From 1947 Author Of “The Plague”

Literature of the past may be our only way to come to terms with a new future

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Onkareshwar Mishra
Onkareshwar Mishra
I am a consultant by profession. I completed my undergraduate from Mechanical Engineering. I enjoy writing and reading books.

INDIA. “For most people, it was obvious that the separation must last until the end of the epidemic. And for every one of us the ruling emotion of his life, which he had imagined he knew through and through, took on a new aspect. This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong. In fact, our suffering was twofold; our own to start with, and then the imagined suffering of the absent one, son, mother, wife, or mistress.”

This is not an excerpt about the forced isolation due to COVID-19. This is not an excerpt from this decade or even from 2 decades past. This is an excerpt from The Plague by Albert Camus, written in 1947. Camus believed that his Plague was very real, not periodic or incessant, but ever-present, inescapable. Although the resemblance to our current pandemic is uncanny, Camus wasn’t a fortuneteller. He was a philosopher, though he had always denied it. A Nobel Prize recipient for literature at the age of 44, he was a journalist, an editor and a writer.

A Portrait of Albert Camus. Photo Credit: New York World-Telegram and Sun Photograph Collection, 1957

Hubris made humanity blind to the possibility of a pandemic

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The Plague is perhaps even more relevant today. Seventy-three years ago, Camus was able to precisely depict human behaviour in a time of lockdown. “Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars. Thus the only way of escaping from that intolerable leisure was to set the trains running again in one’s imagination”.

A pandemic has struck the 21st century, bringing us to our knees, those who have inherited the hubris of technical advancement from our fathers. Everyone had forgotten about the plagues of the past and believed that technology would save us from such an occurrence in the future. Many countries are still in denial. It happened, and according to Camus, it will again. Why? Because it never left. “Pandemic” is just another fabricated term for the concentrated and rarely visible effect of ‘The Pandemic’ that always looms over our human world.

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Once COVID-19 was confirmed, thanks to the media, most people chose to believe, “This won’t affect us.” But the ghost only becomes real when you see it. The Plague is just, in its methods of eradication, treating the prince and the pauper with the same remorselessness. Celebrities and the homeless are equally vulnerable and susceptible. Camus reminds us that we are plagued since the day we were born. Everyone dies for the most stupid reasons: by accidents, diseases, or murder. It is all absurd. All of us die of “The Plague,” in one form or another. While administrations are trying to ameliorate the panic, Camus states that counter-intuitively there is no need to panic, as panic is an emotion derived from the result of suffering or fear of suffering. But we all are already plagued. No man is free from it, no one can overpower it, and it hits everyone with the same uncertainty but with the most certain of results.

Pandemics reveal social injustice

Camus denies the concept and celebration of heroism. You can’t save the day, the day is only delayed not deleted. It’s about decency, that is the only way to live while you wait for judgment. An interesting story coming from Hazaribagh, India celebrates such absurdity. The state had no cases during the 2nd wave of Novel Coronavirus in India. Police saved the life of a thief from the mob by arresting him. The thief tested positive for COVID-19 a few days later and nearly seventy-five cops were quarantined for testing. The virus has no knowledge of human ranks. It is now only happening at a pace and concentration that we have no choice but to notice.

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Another trend this ‘noticeable pace of the Plague’ has brought to light is classism. Social differences have always existed, often hidden, but now these differences have surfaced with the mandates of social distancing. Never was the gap between rich and poor so boldly laid out as in developing countries. The privileges of medical/sanitary facilities, a stable income, and safe shelter for some are disturbingly scarce. Labourers across the world have suffered as COVID-19 has tumbled their house of cards. Inequality and its consequences have been laid bare: from migrants being forced to walk hundred of miles in India to get home to Americans marching in protests against the senseless murder of their black brothers and sisters.

It is of no consequence whether one believes Camus to be a fortuneteller or not; however, we would all be wise to understand what he taught us about ourselves: it is up to us to determine the ways we use the freedom we are given. Do we become paralyzed with panic or do we accept with joy our Sisyphean fate to keep pushing a stone up a mountain as soon as it falls again upon us?

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