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Positive Takeaways from Camus’s ‘The Plague’



These are confusing times. The furor of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it changes that many of us have never experienced: travel bans, suspension of work and classes, eerily empty streets, curfews. Almost everyone I know has had their immediate plans foiled and their lives interrupted. The times feel, in short, absurd.

I am reminded of The Plague by French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, which proves insightful in these trying times.

In The Plague, the Algerian town of Oran is beset by a semi-fictional plague even more ravenous than the effects of COVID-19. Readers watch the events unfold through the eyes of Dr. Rieux, a conflicted and complex protagonist who chooses to stay in Oran and care for patients, while his wife dies of tuberculosis in a distinct sanatorium. He is joined by a myriad of other characters, all exemplifying the many ways in which people respond when confronted with the plague.

Written in the wake of the Second World War, The Plague is often interpreted as an account and criticism of the spread of illness-like ideologies that brought Europe and much of the world to its knees. Hatred made manifest in the crimes of Nazism was seen as a disease that infected people in ways both insidious and deadly. The Plague becomes relevant again today in light of a far more concrete sickness, that of COVID-19, that is sweeping the world.

Much of Camus’s works constructs “the Absurd,” the philosophical idea borne out of the juxtaposition between the human drive to fine meaning, and our apparent inability to do so in the face of the vast, indifferent universe. 

The word “absurd” seems apt for the pandemic we are facing today. The illness’s gravity cannot be understated, and we find that those most likely to suffer its severest consequence are our society’s most vulnerable. Its absurdity is perhaps exemplified by a main in Italy who had to watch his sister die and had to beg coroners to give her a proper burial.

Screen cap of said video

Screen cap of the tragic video

This, to me, is senseless suffering.

The Plague’s characters remain salient in light of today’s myriad responses to COVID-19; many of Camus’s characters seem absurd in their confrontation of their own and others’ mortality. 

Rambert, a journalist who finds himself in Oran only in passing, attempts to flee the town, seemingly indifferent to the plight of those around him. I am reminded of those of us who still maintain that this is “just another flu” (which it very much is not), and risk spreading the disease to the elderly or those with chronic comorbidities.

The priest Fr. Paneloux rails on his congregation and interprets the plague as punishment from God; early in the novel, sickness and death for him are only abstract concepts. Even Dr. Rieux, the central character, is initially indifferent to the plague, believing that “it’ll pass.”

Although it is easy to draw parallels between these characters and the societal criticisms so rampant in the media, an honest self-assessment finds us seeing our own flaws in these characters. I’ll speak for myself: as a young person, I feel safe despite the vulnerability of many of those around me; I am ignorant of the physical experience of acute respiratory distress; I too had initially thought that the coronavirus would simply pass. The Plague’s characters’ absurd actions suddenly seem not so strange.

As the plague progresses, however, the characters change. They answer the disease’s crescendo with an orchestra of human action. 

Rambert is moved to join the team that fights the plague at the front lines, risking himself to care for the sick. I am reminded of those who have been so giving of themselves in terms of time, effort, and resources as our country works to combat COVID-19. 

Fr. Paneloux engages the sick and dying, and is transformed in his faith as he witnesses the absurdity of a child’s gruesome death. He is reminiscent of the clergy and laypeople today who bravely stare human suffering in the eye, converting pain into empathy and kindness. 

Dr. Rieux leads the charge against the plague. He seeks no reward for his efforts, accepting stoically the passing of his wife far from him as he treats the sick in Oran. He does so not for some heroic ideal but simply because it is the decent thing to do. I am reminded of the countless nurses, doctors, caregivers, parents, and children, who today give not just hope but also life.

Although the characters are a mix of fear, blind religious fervor, and apathy, they also come to exemplify bravery, empathy, self-sacrifice. Importantly, these characters shed light on the admirable actions of so many others around us. We see a bit of ourselves in each of them, too.

Despite the apparent indifference of the universe to human suffering, and our ultimate impotence against the certainty of death, the Absurd finds its solution in the meaning we as a collective human species create for ourselves. Meaning, Camus argues in The Plague, is not something to be found, but something to be created deliberately. The time is ripe as we face this global pandemic together.

Creating meaning can be as simple as living with respect for another human being’s life. We do this in the simple yet effective actions we can take to combat COVID-19, such as adherence to evidence-based guidelines including social distancing, frequent handwashing, and attentiveness to our own symptoms. Our conscious choices that prevent viral spread can avert senseless suffering that vulnerable populations may otherwise have to endure. Simple generosity towards those without means, or the bravery and self-sacrifice at the front lines: these choices, too, constitute our rebellion against the Absurd.

We can harp on the mistakes that have been made, the missed opportunities for mitigation of transmission, the indifference of many to the plight of others. Or we can eke out meaning in our collective effort to combat the plague. In recognizing our frailty, deliberately and urgently, we can choose to create our strength.

These are confusing times. These are absurd times. Perhaps COVID-19 has taught us what Camus had laid out many decades ago: that which we learn in the midst of the plague is that “there is more in each of us to admire than to despite.”

Source: Manila Bulletin

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