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The Plague of Our Times

Covid-19 is a multi-dimensional plague facing us

by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne
writing from Montreal

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The other day, I read an excellent article by Alain de Botton titled Albert Camus on the Coronavirus in this newspaper – originally published in The New York Times (which I commend to the reader) - and it impelled me to read Albert Camus’ work The Plague, which I dusted off my bookshelf, once again.

Camus starts the novel, which he started in 1941 and published in 1947, with a description of an “ugly” French Algerian town called Oran where “… certainly nothing is commoner nowadays than to see people working from morn till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card-tables, in cafes and in small-talk what time is left for living at Oran” amidst “the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business, the uninspiring surroundings, the sudden nightfall, and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feel out of it there. Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafes or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place…”

Then one day – April 16th – the protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, steps out of his apartment and treads on something soft which turns out to be a dead rat. He kicks it to the side nonchalantly and proceeds to his surgery, only to realise in a few minutes that a dead rat on his landing was an unusual sight. More dead rats appear in the following days, appearing to have spurted blood from their mouths.

After a few days, his charwoman tells him that several hundred dead rats had been collected in the big factory where her husband worked. The townspeople are awakened to an epidemic. Bernard Rieux reminisces: “ everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise”. Camus posits : “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions”.

Sounds familiar?

Camus, who was an atheist, brings to bear the indifference of a self serving world to human suffering and the meaningless pursuit of ascribing to life a precise meaning and purpose through consequentialism and materialistic values. The character of Cottard in the novel, who has committed a crime and fears arrest, welcomes the plague which offers him comfort that the rest of the town is sharing his state of fear of death and punishment. The plagues serves many purposes, depending on the subjective circumstances of individuals.

The people in Oran are incredulous – that the plague could hit them - they who are enjoying their comfortable lives. This could only happen to others:, not to them. But they die in their hundreds. After some months, the disease goes away, and everything is forgotten. The gates of the city open and people proudly exclaim that they have conquered the pestilence.

Camus’ message is both literal and metaphorical – that any disaster should not be treated as an irritation but as a serious existential threat. Liesl Schillinger, who is quoted in a literary Hub article titled What We Can Learn (and Should Unlearn) From Albert Camus’s The Plague says: “he addresses any contagion that might overtake any society; from a disease like cholera, the Spanish Influenza, AIDS, SARS, or, yes, COVID-19; to a corrosive ideology, like Fascism, or Totalitarianism, which can infect a whole population”.

Sun Tzu in his Art of War posits one must know oneself as much as one knows one’s enemy. The problem is that, as Camus reflects in his novel, we do not seem to know ourselves and our vulnerabilities and choose to ignore red flags not only in the face of epidemics and disease but also when confronted with other existential threats. Politically, grave and ominous threats that portend danger to the global community are ignored as minor irritations that will go away. Covid -19 teaches us that we need determination, self reliance and optimism in the face of hardship. We have to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we could restore a sense of community to a world torn by conflict and that despite all personal tragedy, we have a sense of control over our own destiny.

Finally, we must also realise the fragility and randomness of our own health and life and teach ourselves a collective humility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the bestselling author of The Black Swan, in his book Antifragile introduces the reader to the interesting and well-reasoned concept called “Antifragile”. He states that any system which depends on predictability and presumption is fragile and that “some things benefit from shocks and they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors”. According to Taleb black swans (which as we all know are a rarity) are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events which can either devastate those that are fragile and dependent on a certain rigid stability or energize risk takers and flexible persons into action.

This is a time when we must also be careful of exploitation. Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Alfred A. Knopf: Canada, 2007) bases her thesis on the premise that people who are devastated by a disaster look towards rebuilding what they lost whereas free market forces look for exactly the opposite – to start with a clean slate by exploiting the disaster to their advantage. Covid-19 is a multi-dimensional plague facing us. This must not happen.

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