The coronavirus pandemic could be something out of a horror movie, perhaps from sci-fi, a thriller… mystery… existential fiction. What the world is experiencing with the coronavirus has been well covered in literature and film, dealing with questions of the origin of the plague, and how people, society, the world responds. The book may focus on the battle for survival or the struggle to remain civilized in the face of a horrific crisis. Did the plague descend suddenly? Or was it so gradual that the citizens didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late?
In The Plague, by Albert Camus (published in 1947) there are hints, but the townspeople’s first reaction is not to see the dead rats as a threat. The story builds slowly; there is no single event which grabs your attention. The characters are calm, perhaps detached, even boring. Yet the story grips the reader as he experiences the burgeoning threat. Nothing is exciting in The Plague, there are no heroes, no villains. There is just a relentless dreariness.
“Thus week by week the prisoners of the plague put up what fight they could. Some, like Rambert, even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone.”
While good literature can survive without heroes or villains, the media (social or mainstream) cannot. Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Gal Gadot, ‘My Pillow Guy’ (Mike Lindell), World Health Organization, Jews, religion, sin, Singapore, the USA, Israel and China have all been lionized or demonized for their responses to the coronavirus pandemic (I agree with vilifying the latter). The media have fueled fear, hysteria and hatred in their audiences. Rather than responding to the pandemic, they rail against whomever they can accuse, be it neighbor or politician, for failing to properly fulfill their responsibilities.
“I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death.”
There have been plagues and pestilence throughout human history, many of them far more severe than the present. Covid 19 is unprecedented both in how modern, efficient transportation has allowed it to easily spread so far. It is unprecedented in how modern, efficient communications have allowed rumors, accusations, true and false information to easily spread so far. It is understandable that governments, regulators, health care system are floundering, making wrong decisions, changing strategies. Our perfect hindsight allows us to scream at them nonetheless.
We stand in fear and awe, confronting the unknown. We’re suddenly living a life that in our complacency we could only attribute to fiction. We can use this as a learning opportunity to appreciate the gift of life, to distinguish between the vital and the trivial.
The book The Plague is a twentieth century classic, which captures the essence of this part of the twenty-first century. Camus bared the heart of man, devoid of spectacle or suspense. How will we direct our hearts?
“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”