Three months after the official US government “end” of three years of monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic that took over 1.1 million American lives, we are back to “new normal.” This is the Summer of Pink—Barbie, Taylor Swift, and the women’s soccer world playoffs. We witness divisive politics-as-usual in Washington DC and four indictments of former president Donald J. Trump. Carefree citizens seem to have forgotten the past three years of contagion, contentiousness, suffering, and death. Our “public health emergency” has been replaced by a “science of forgetfulness.” The insistence to return to “normal”—or something relatively close—is acute. This is both a symptom of “pandemic fatigue” and so-called existential relief at being alive, working from home, traveling abroad, and planning the future. (Everything now seems to be labeled “existential”—journalists, pundits, and politicians concur!)
Philosopher Albert Camus offered us a compelling narrative in 1947 that became a bestseller again in spring 2020 as the world shut down its social activities to withdraw into isolation. As a pied noir, Camus was born a French citizen in Algeria whose burden was to reconcile his two allegiances through philosophical insight. As a novelist, he set The Plague in Oran, a rather lifeless seaport he called “modern” where people’s daily routines were set by the sun and the seasons. Out of nowhere, rats invade. They bring horror, disease, and slow, breathless death. We track a predictable pattern of human behavior previously documented in real-world accounts of plagues from ancient Greece (the Justinian Plague of 541 BC), fourteenth-century Italy (Boccaccio on the Black Death), and Daniel Defoe (seventeenth-century Great Plague of London).
Camus’s plague invites rich comparisons to COVID-19: denial, anger, fear, hostility, resignation in the face of the uncontrollable. He seeks to explain the absurdity of unprovoked death, arbitrary infliction, and human inevitability in facing a “foe” that takes on animalistic, indeed anthropomorphic qualities intent on slaying the masses. “We all face death together” is Dr Rieux’s mantra, as he advocates fighting without a cure, while awaiting a vaccine, as people turn on one another. Similarly, we watch medical science argue with those who call COVID-19 a “hoax.” We defend doctors, nurses, parents, and vulnerable populations who defy anti-vaxxers. Dr Rieux calls for solidarity—what I call “heroic solidarity”—in order to rally the troops who have volunteered to help. On the metaphorical level, of course, he is recalling the French Resistance to fight Nazism during World War II:
Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people: so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
Albert Camus, The Plague, 308
Did we face the foe of Covid and fight together in heroic solidarity: our behavior a confirmation of Camus’s idealism, “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men rise above themselves”? Or did we fail the challenge to unite, opting instead for selfishness, pettiness, and political weaponization of a virus that killed seven million people worldwide? As Camus hauntingly foretells, the plague bacillus never dies; it waits, below the surface, to rise again. Camus’s 74-year-old daughter offered her thoughts in March of 2020 when sales of the book soared; “Perhaps with the lockdown we will have some time to reflect about what is real, what is important, and become more human.” We can surely tell ourselves that next time, after further study and reflection, we will be more prepared. But will we?
Featured image via Unsplash, public domain