Destiny, Fear and Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

Albert Camus’ “The Plague” narrates an outbreak of bubonic plague in the French-Algerian port city of Oran, sometime in the 1940s. Dr. Bernard Rieux notices the sudden appearance of dying rats around town, and soon thousands of rats are coming out into the open to die. The public grows panicked, and the government finally arranges a daily cremation of rat bodies. Soon after the rat epidemic disappears, M. Michel, the concierge for Dr. Rieux’s office building, comes down with a strange fever and dies. More cases appear, and Dr. Rieux and his colleague Dr. Castel believe the disease is bubonic plague. They urge the government to take action, but the authorities drag their feet until the death toll rises so high that the plague is impossible to deny. Finally, they close the gates and quarantine Oran.

The townspeople react to their sudden isolation with feelings of exile and longing for absent loved ones, with each individual assuming that their suffering is unique. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, delivers a sermon declaring that the plague is a divine punishment for Oran’s sins. Raymond Rambert, a foreign journalist, tries to escape Oran and rejoin his wife in Paris, but he is held up by the bureaucracy and the unreliability of the criminal underground. He is aided in his attempts by Cottard, a man who committed an unknown crime in the past and has since then lived in constant paranoia. Cottard is the only citizen to welcome the plague, as it reduces the rest of the public to his level of fear and loneliness, and he builds up a small fortune smuggling. Meanwhile Rieux struggles ceaselessly against the plague and is joined by Jean Tarrou, another visitor to Oran, and Joseph Grand, an older municipal clerk who longs for his ex-wife and struggles daily over the first sentence of a book he is trying to write.

“The Plague” is essentially a philosophical novel, meaning that it expresses a particular worldview through its plot and characterization. Camus is often considered an existentialist, but the philosophy he most identified with and developed was called Absurdism. At its most basic, this philosophy holds that the universe is absurd and meaningless – there is no God or cosmic order – and that humans are doomed to suffer and die. Because of this situation, humans have three options in life: to commit suicide, to make a “leap of faith” and choose to believe in a divine entity or order, or to accept the Absurd and create one’s own meaning in life. Camus advocated this third choice, as the first option is a kind of cowardice and the second is a psychological lie that Camus even compared to suicide.

In “The Plague”, the besieged town becomes a microcosm of the universe, and the different characters illustrate different ways humans deal with the Absurd – that is, the plague. Cottard first tries to commit suicide (because of his guilt, another kind of plague) and then works with the epidemic, profiting off of others’ suffering. Father Paneloux tries to assign order to the plague (as a punishment from God), but when he is faced with the true nature of the Absurd through watching a child die, Paneloux loses his faith and succumbs to disease himself. The protagonists of the novel, RieuxRambert, and Tarrou, live and struggle in the way that Camus advocates. They recognize the Absurd (the power of the plague and their own inevitable doom) but still work ceaselessly against it, finding meaning in healing others.

Despite the enormity of suffering and death in the world and the seeming omnipotence of the plague, there are instances of heroism and altruistic struggle as well. Camus immediately undercuts the “heroic” efforts of the volunteer groups by declaring that to the fight the plague is the only decent, truly human thing to do. But this is because he believes that humans are generally good. These “heroes” fit into his idea of Absurdism, as in the face of a harsh, uncaring universe, one must struggle to help others and “fight the plague,” even if defeat is inevitable. This kind of struggle in the face of certain death is a possible definition of heroism, however, so Camus is proposing a kind of heroism in everyday life – to embrace the Absurd, but at the same time to struggle hopelessly against it.

The anti-plague sanitation squad is the most concrete example of this kind of defiance, and the most sympathetic characters of the novel try hard to be “healers” rather than merely “pestilences” or “victims,” as Tarrou says. Rieux, the central protagonist, does not have a concrete philosophical or religious reason for struggling against the plague, but he knows that he must struggle, and Camus implies that this is the most important thing. Grand is the only character that Camus explicitly calls heroic. This might be because Grand is a sort of mediocre everyman, but he also joins the anti-plague effort and inspires others to defiance.

At this writing more than 12.1 million people have been infected from COVID-19 in the world, and at least 550,000 have died, according to a Johns Hopkins University report. The USA is still the epicenter with 3.1 million people infected, and 134,000 deaths. India and Russia have both sped up, reaching over 700,000 infected. In Europe the United Kingdom has become first in total deaths, by far surpassing Italy and Spain. But the epicenter is rapidly moving to Latin America, with Brazil as second worst by infections and deaths, followed by the worrying increase of cases in Peru, Chile and Mexico. And we still don’t know what will be the final social, economic and psychological effects of this pandemic.

Camus’ description of the city of Oran and the nihilistic and existential answer he indirectly proposes seem both outdated and far away from us. But actually, Camus’s description and philosophical reflection is very human and, in the nutshell, represents well what we are living today, as we face this Covid-19 epidemic. Camus used as source material the cholera epidemic that killed a large proportion of Oran's population in 1849, but situated the novel in the 1940s. But Oran and its surroundings were struck by disease several times before Camus published his novel. According to an academic study, Oran was also decimated by the bubonic plague in 1556 and 1678. In other words, Camus is trying to remind us moderns and post-moderns that we feel invulnerable because we have built up a fictitiously short time-span for telling ourselves what we are and what we do. But as soon as we enlarge this time-span, as Camus does, we immediately discover ourselves to be both vulnerable and much like those who went before us. We must stop accelerating and compacting time. By doing so we have created a fake world that deceives because it pushes us to believe we are greater and better than other people in history. We are just like others even if we feel more technological, richer and more informed. Oran’s history is ours. Oran is the city we live in, though it may be called Bergamo, New York, San Paolo, Wuhan, London, Lima or Paris. Relearning this historical solidarity will give us a better sense of what we really are, and can disclose the nobility and resilience of people we today might disdainfully call backward or primitive.

But Camus’ “The Plague” doesn’t just teach us that “historical solidarity” is necessary. It also teaches us “ideological solidarity” as well. Beyond our religious, philosophical and moral convictions, we can make a difference if we just pay attention to, and be empathic toward, people in the situation we are now living in. We may not agree on the origin of the universe, on the universality of the Sabbath or the Bible, on humans’ final destiny or even on the etiology and physiopathology of Covid-19. But such disagreements are not enough to prevent convergence toward a common feeling of disarray, and a corresponding act of human solidarity. Dr. Bernard Rieux incarnates this minimum of mental and human lucidity, independently and beyond his eventual religious and ethical convictions. His vulnerability and understandable fear makes him human, and allows him to perceive a common belonging in the face of a common risk and danger.

A noble religious and ethical attitude should be qualified, not only by the degree of conviction, but also by the degree of flexibility it creates in us. And above all by the capacity and readiness it stimulates in us to act with people we consider distant from our religious and moral worldview. Because more fundamental is that which evidences our common belonging to the same earth and the same history. This is what, in essence, Faith means. True Faith doesn’t detach us from God’s world but rather gives it us back to us. This is the profile of true religion (Isaiah 58).

And this is also what the German philosopher and Biologist Andreas Weber suggests, when he writes that we Westerns live according the pragmatic motto: “Try in every situation to avoid death and survive”, while indigenous people live after the solidaristic motto “Everything lives, for this reason try together with others to nurture life.” It’s what he calls “Indigenialität” (“indi-geniality”)

"We are all savages," says Weber, making it clear that our civilization has not only colonized the indigenous people, but also our own thinking. Wild does not mean random in the sense of Thomas Hobbes, but rather open for exchange, in a world of mutuality. If we want to make the world a life-giving place again, we should discover the indigenous within ourselves. Avant-garde thinkers in physics, biology and the humanities are just beginning to re-explore this holistic cosmos in the face of our ecological and social crises. Getting involved offers the chance to become a living part of a holistic reality and to gain a new way of dealing with it. This is what Dr. Bernard Rieux does in Camus’ book. And if his minimalist ethics, or his heterodox religiosity allows him to do this, it means that these are already in the path of life. They are alternative expressions of God the creator.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

 


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10581
1 Like

Albert Camus’ “The Plague” certainly offers an interesting lay perspective to elaborate a human answer to a social crisis. There should be a common ground between the various ideologies and religions on which to build up a convergent action. Thanks.

Reading this essay about the Camus’ novel which used the metaphor of a plague reminded me of this article written by Brian McLaren, a faculty member of the Center for Action and Contemplation:

“In these challenging, difficult times, we are discovering a wisdom that we needed all along, and that wisdom is that we are all connected. We are not separate. We used to think that we caught diseases as individuals: “I’m sick; you’re not.” But now we realize, no, we catch diseases as individuals who are part of families, and families who are part of cities, and cities that are part of states and nations. We realize now that our whole species can become infected, and that our whole globe can be changed because of our interconnectedness. . .

Maybe this is also an opportunity for us to become enlightened about some other viruses that have been spreading and causing even greater damage, without being acknowledged: social and spiritual viruses that spread among us from individual to individual, from generation to generation, and are not named. We don’t organize against them, and so they continue to spread and cause all kinds of sickness [and death]. Social and spiritual viruses like racism, white supremacy, human supremacy, Christian supremacy, any kind of hostility that is spread, based on prejudice and fear.

What would happen if we said, as passionate as we are about being tested for coronavirus, we all wanted to test ourselves for these social and spiritual viruses that could be lurking inside of us? And then, when I come into your presence, I, in some way, inflict this virus on you. I make you suffer. What an awesome opportunity for us to say and begin to pray that we would be healed and cleansed, not just of a physical virus, but of these other invisible viruses that are such a huge and devastating part of human history. . . .

In this pandemic, many of us are nostalgic for the old normal. We want to get back to our favorite coffee shop, our favorite restaurant, our church service. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with so many of those desires for the old normal. But I’d like to make a proposal. If we are wise in this time, we will not go back unthinkingly to the old normal. There were problems with that old normal many of us weren’t aware of.

The old normal, when you look at it from today’s perspective, was not so great, not something to be nostalgic about, without also being deeply critical of it. As we experience discomfort in this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses the weaknesses and problems that were going unaddressed in the old normal. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.”

And yet-this comment suggests something explicitly unaddressed.

The named social viruses are limited only to melanin challenged peoples.

Curious, that. Do you believe melanin then provides immunity to social/spiritual viruses?

1 Like

Judging by the knowledge I have gained about the CAC over the years, I take the phrase “any kind of hostility” to be all-encompassing.

And yet-your comment, as well the treatise-is glaringly only white encompassing. What are you meaning re CAC?

I posit that criminal action is first and foremost, just that-criminal action.

To turn it into a racial issue only does disservice to history, to the present, and to the future.

1 Like

I do not see the McLaren article as you do.
The CAC is a Christian group which believes there is value in other sacred traditions and tries to honour and learn from other perspectives.
This may help:

1 Like

Dave, my comment is principally aimed at the reposted quote of yours in my first post.

Your examples of social/spiritual viruses is blatantly biased, perhaps unsurprisingly given the proclivity, for example, to suggest the commiechina19 virus is itself targeting a race unfairly. This is ostensibly the acid rain falling from the toxic partisan and racial thunderheads looming above us.

Both are concepts requiring examination-and demand robust pushback.

Except for the introductory sentence, my entire first post consisted of the McLaren article (check the quotation marks). Hence, you have objected to his words and indirectly to the teachings of the CAC. That is why I tried to direct you to examine their principles, which I do not believe agree with your characterization.

1 Like

No Dave, I object to your reification of the blatant falsehood in the article,
since you chose to highlight these extremely race-biased examples of social/spiritual viruses.

I can certainly entertain that there are a myriad of social viruses-such as those which glorify resisting lawful police action, or those which deny a nuclear family as the core bedrock of society.
There are many more.

How about the social virus that believes all the TV propaganda-of either stripe-and never engages critical thought? Back to the virus-and the quarantine “to flatten the curve”.

Why was the curve artificially made to appear STEEPER?

1)Early testing-only severely symptomatic cases tested.

2)Current testing-any/all tested, predominantly asymptomatic.

Problem-the two schemes are not relevant to each other, and if combined are completely and utterly irrelevant.

Now, we can compare symptomatic then to symptomatic now-to a limited degree, and the results of such comparison can have some validity-but apparently we are now testing the same patients serially. Seems for some nearly inexplicable reason, these repeat tests-if positive- are being added to “total cases” tally. More about that in a moment.

Perhaps if we had tested mild and asymptomatic cases in phase 1, we might be able to have a historical basis to compare current phase 2 testing-but had we done that, it would not be possible to say that the epidemic is now suddenly “surging”.

I’m suggesting that limiting early testing to only the most sick skewed the hyper-prognostications of the mortality rate to much higher, but unfounded, rates. Note too that early mortality rate numbers were skewed by the practice of disregarding equally (or more) fatal “normal” co-morbid conditions. I further suggest that the very unscientific consolidation of incompatibly derived numbers as well incorporating serial positive same-patient tests as “new cases” is also creating a seemingly very high surge in cases.

Science should dictate medicine-but the fear seemingly being intently fanned will only serve politically partisan superstition.

I sense this is the first epidemic in the history of the world that we have treated not with science or medicine …

Think for yourselves, folks, engage your critical thought processes. You can trust neither the WHO or the CDC-strange bedfellows with stranger consorts. Not your party or media, not your TV talking heads.

Our data is compromised-badly.

Any policies based on conclusions from them are suspect.

Rant over.

AchhhHHHOOOO!!!

(sorry, pollen bad tonite, and hows come no one says

“God bless you” anymore?? Hope i didn’t get any on you…)

Come, let us reason-the cure is critical thought, checking your bias both sides), questioning the too-convenient (and mutable) standard narrative.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed after 7 days. New replies are no longer allowed.