The Spinozist

writing by Paul Mendrik

Morality and the pandemic

May 22, 2020

The novel The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus appeared in 1947. The author prepared the book during the years of the German occupation in France. The plague allows him to demonstrate the different possible reactions to the enemy's presence. To make a connection with the COVID-19 pandemic is only a small step.

Through the narration of Doctor Bernard Rieux, spokesperson for Camus, the reader learns that a plague is raging in Oran, a city of 200,000 inhabitants located in Algeria. The city will be isolated for several months. The plague is first announced by an invasion of rats before spreading to humans. People die by the hundreds. Camus was inspired by real events.

No one can leave or return to the city. Separation is difficult. Many parents, children, lovers,  believe in a temporary expulsion by leaving the city for a few days, but the curse doesn’t seems to want to end. 

We are like the citizens of Oran in that "plagues and wars still make people totally helpless", but their situation is different from ours since our citizens, during the Covid-19 epidemic, visit and frequent cafes and restaurants. There is no strict appliance of confinement or social distancing, sanitary measures are hardly applied. No one is worried about the presence of asymptomatic cases. Isolation is only applied to proven cases of the epidemic.

Shops are closing. Supplies are rationed. Tourists are absent. The epidemic destabilises all economic life and causes a considerable number of unemployed. Doctors and  nurses are  also dying. We lack essential equipment, such as protective masks, artificial respirators and, above all, a vaccine. In the novel, queues of buyers are forming and traffic has diminished. The "separated", as the inhabitants of Oran are called, drink a lot, echoing our reliance on open off-licences  as an essential service. Appearances are not important. Insane gestures occur: a plague victim suddenly hugs a woman in the street. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some have spat on others to challenge and attempt a fruitless revolt.

Is closing a city too much of a sacrifice? After three weeks, the press asks: “Should we consider relaxing the measures?" There are deaths, but for many the problem remains abstract. We know the effects caused by the virus, but the enemy remains invisible, despite the images and statistics. COVID-19 remains a kind of abstraction that disrupts our personal happiness, an abstraction some contest and who desire a rapid return to erstwhile days. Then, like the citizens of Oran, we somehow end up adapting to the abnormality. Our revolt is fading. "The habit of despair is worse than despair itself," Camus writes.

How to behave in the face of fatality? Remain lucid, show active fatalism. Do your job well, if you are lucky enough to be able to work during this period. Rieux treats the sick. Castel is looking for a serum. Grand prepares the statistics. The priest Paneloux officiates. Othon is a judge. Tarrou and Rambert offer their help. Journalist Rambert first sought to leave Oran. It’s not his city. This enemy is not his. A woman is waiting outside. She asks Rieux to help him. Rieux refuses. He then criticises Rieux for living in abstraction. Rambert refuses collective history, he brings everything back to his personal dimension. Rieux partly proves him right. 

Unhappiness has its share of abstraction, "but when abstraction begins to kill you, you have to deal with abstraction." Then Rambert, ashamed of having wanted to be happy alone, joins the health organisation.

The priest Paneloux organises a collective prayer. During his preaching, he proclaims: "My brothers, you're living a calamity, my brothers, you deserve it." All religious leaders are certainly not traditionalists. The majority act responsibly. However, during the pandemic, some preachers and televangelists were observed to become deviant. In the United States, Kenneth Copeland, not afraid of ridicule, offered a cure live on television. Others refused to close their churches, claiming it was a safe place.

Rieux, a man of science, does not know what to do with theological thoughts, foreign to the real world of illness. He sticks to the facts. His only certainty: there are sick people, they must be treated. Salvation is health first. You have to get to work, do something concrete, show compassion and not despise those who are active, not just judge the game from afar, in the comfort of your living room. It’s not heroism, but realism.

Beyond religious deterioration, could  the plague not teach us something? Rieux replies: "It may serve a few." However, when you see the misery and the pain it brings, you have to be crazy, blind or cowardly to resign yourself to the plague. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals positive aspects: solidarity, creativity, thinking about the meaning of our lives. But who would really want such plagues so that the best of us can emerge? These beautiful actions that we describe in great detail fail to pay "an indirect and helpless tribute to evil. Because we imagine that these actions are worthy only because they are rare and that wickedness and indifference are much more frequent engines in the actions of men ". Men are that mean, repeats Rieux. He doesn't blame the priest. Moreover, Paneloux, "better than his preaching", will end up taking concrete action by joining a health team, the only sensible thing to do. After the death of the son of judge Othon, an innocent victim if there is one, he moderates his speech. Refusing all care, the plague will eventually prevail.

The character of Jean Tarrou says he is plagued even before the epidemic begins. By what? By his complicity with injustice. He closed his eyes to the death penalty. The plague becomes the metaphor for injustice from which no one escapes completely. What injustices has the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light? Our contempt for the elderly who cannot die with dignity. Our contempt for beneficiary claimants. We can certainly die from COVID-19, but above all we must avoid, to paraphrase Camus, adding to the misfortune of the world by injecting it with doses of aberration, ignorance and stupidity.

Despite  general misfortune, Rieux and Tarrou decide to have fun and go swimming. We must continue to be able to taste the pleasure of life and friendship, they say, because if they give up, why should they continue to fight against the plague? Do we also have to stop laughing during COVID-19? We need to laugh, otherwise life would be far too dull. Laughing does not mean that the drama is being ignored. Laughter does not mean a victory of cynicism. Laughter disconcerts minds.

The plague had to end and there had to be a return to normal life. There are those who have been unlucky, like Tarrou, and those who die while the situation improves. At first there was "negative relief", as inhabitants still live under the ancient reign of the plague. New habits are difficult to get rid of. We are not sure, the plague bacillus never dies or disappears. Will everything resume as before? What will change in the hearts of men? In organisations? Tarrou was convinced that after the plague a great peace would come to pass. Is he a dreamer ?

The citizens of Oran eventually find each other. First timidly, and then gradually, they were able to hug again.

And for us, how will it be in the next world? How long will it take to regain a semblance of normality? Is it possible to return to the world before? Like Rieux, we must remember that victory is never entirely final. For bereaved families and the sick, the reign of COVID-19 will never end. There will be this intermediate period "when the time of suffering ended and the time of oblivion had not yet begun". The pandemic will never be forgotten. It will forever mark our minds and our collective memory.

Let us be ready, vigilant and generous towards each other, without deluding ourselves. This is Camus' lesson in La Peste.