I reread The Plague this week to cheer me up a bit in coronavirus times and to see what lessons could be drawn. The fictional novel is based on the true story of a city closed to the world after falling victim to a terrible epidemic.
The first lesson shook me because it all sounded so believable. Camus writes that the response to the first signs of a contagious disease tends to be the same as mine was, which is something that is causing problems for us today: we want to believe that it will not influence the normal flow of life too much.
“Plague,” Camus writes, “is, in fact, very common, but we have a hard time believing it is happening when it descends upon us.” The main character in the novel, Dr. Rieux, initially does not want to believe in the seriousness of what is coming. “He was torn between anxiety and confidence. When war breaks out, people say, ‘It won’t last, this is too stupid.’” The plague is not optional like political preferences, and it soon becomes “everyone’s business” once the dead begin to pile up. Things can no longer be the same. The city is quarantined, transportation and the economy are stopped, and people withdraw from the madding crowd into their homes, in what Camus calls “home exile.”
This is the point they reached in China, they have now reached in Italy, and we are reaching it here in Spain, in the rest of Europe and quite possibly in the rest of the world.
What happens next in The Plague, published in 1947, is what is happening today with the coronavirus. People stop making plans. We start living and waiting in an uncertain present. A friend wrote to me from London on Thursday night to say that Messi and Barcelona, were going to win the Champions League. I replied, “You are assuming that the Champions League will continue … we can no longer think about the future.”
The same with football, with everything. Or with many things. Mass events (sports, music concerts, Donald Trump rallies in Oklahoma) or not so massive (cinema, theatre, museums, conferences, cultural gatherings, weddings): goodbye. Businesses, large and small, live by making forecasts but now it is impossible. When will schools close, or when will those that are already closed reopen? We don’t know. Were you thinking of buying a home or planning a vacation? Better to wait. Travelling on public transport? Better not.
Camus has a simple answer for the essentials for combatting the plague: “with decency.” In the case of coronavirus, respecting others; keeping distances. “Social distancing” is the slogan in vogue in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Decency today is to follow the recommendations of the authorities. Hopefully the cure is not worse than the disease, but there is no other choice but to put ourselves in their hands. I plan to exercise more caution than I had thought necessary.
But another caveat the Camus book offers us is not to go crazy. “No panic,” he writes, “first of all, no panic.” An example of panic would be the indecency to empty the supermarkets. Another would be to believe that contracting the Coronavirus is the end of the world, when science indicates that 80 percent of those infected suffer minor discomfort.
I still want to think that there are no reasons to succumb to fear, that if we obey the new rules of social distance the risk will not be so great and the proportion of victims will not exceed that of Hubei, the Chinese province where it all started. According to data collected by one of the most reputable medical centres in the world, John Hopkins University in the United States, 67,760 infected people have been reported in Hubei, with a total population of 59 million. In other words, the contagion rate has been 0.11 percent. Perhaps, of course, there are many undetected cases, but even so, it seems reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of citizens living in the epicentre of the disease have been safe.
On the other hand, there are scientists who say that half the world is going to end up contagious, and there is no scientist who has any idea of how many deaths there will be. However, one day this will end, like the plague that Camus portrays and all the plagues that the world has suffered since the time of the Pharaohs. In the worst case, we will learn to live with the coronavirus, as with so many other diseases, some more lethal than others.
But there will be a before and an after, even in the small details of everyday life. Our habits will change for the better (at least we will wash our hands more often) but perhaps in some cases for the worse. There are those who will say that it is absurd for me to worry about this now, but I fear the loss of something that I value in Latin societies. The touchy feely thing.
From Tierra del Fuego to Tijuana, in Spain, Italy and France, people greet each other with more kisses, hugs, slaps or hand contacts than in other places on Earth. Losing these customs would mean a decrease in the much celebrated human warmth of these cultures which would become more English. Well, more English or Japanese. That said, if we all greet each other from now on by bowing our heads, it could have its charm.
What we should not lose under any circumstances, and the coronavirus will test us, is the decency that Camus talks about in his book. After observing the misery, generosity, fear and nobility that people exhibit during the plague’s quarantine, Camus concludes that “in the midst of so many afflictions” what one learns is that “in man there are more things worthy of admiration than of contempt.” The future of humanity is less predictable than it was just a couple of weeks ago, but as the plague that afflicts us evolves today, no matter how poorer or sadder or more foolish or wiser we come out of it, Camus’ conclusion is a constant of the human condition that will not change. Or so I would like to believe.
John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 14 March 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell,