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Covid and Camus

Robindra Subba | August 13, 2020
Covid and Camus

There has been an exasperating influx of information on all aspects of the pandemic sweeping the globe. Cures and preventions ranging from cow urine to hydroxychloroquine, have been promoted and discredited with dizzying frequency. This leaves one both frustrated and, to some extent, vulnerable–not by lack of knowledge–but by the sheer magnitude of the debateable mountains of data social media throws at one.

However, very little is said about how one lives with the acceptance of the pandemic. The fact that it is as existential as the grass–coupled with lockdowns, isolation and the fact that our species can be obliterated with a bug–has created a fear that homo sapiens have not experienced. True, epidemics have surfaced in various parts of the globe before. And we have watched the suffering and body count, reclined on our sofas secure in our apathy. Or we read about them in our history books — millions dead, a quirk of fate and catastrophic ignorance.

Dealing with this strange dilemma

But now the virus lurks everywhere; your very fingers can be the death of you. It then dawns on you that no matter how much you wash your hands, isolate or mask yourself – we are mortal. We are not a special species shielded by a benevolent figure lurking in the clouds and now that this pandemic is here to stay as part of human existence, how are we to deal with this virus? Do we allow ourselves the freedom to lead our lives cringing in the corners of our houses or are we going to reclaim our freedom? Therein lies the question.

It would be absurd to claim one magical solution to this almost surreal situation. Many have much by way of knowledge and technique to tackle this strange dilemma. Meditate, eat, pray, love, drink, pop pills or even yoga — take your pick! But if you are a rationalist and harbour a love for literature, please read on.

“There is no heroism in all of this”

Albert Camus, in his 1947 novel, wove the story of an epidemic outbreak in a small town on the French Algerian coast. According to many a critic, La Peste as Camus called it, was one of the finest books of the 20th century. It was then translated into English by Stuart Gilbert and this iteration was called The Plague.

Published ten years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus picked Oran in the 1940’s to be infected. First, rats died in droves and then people. In the initial stages of the outbreak, and much like we regarded Covid-19 at its outset, people were not too concerned. But as the epidemic raged on and came nearer home, the now not-so-unusual panic and fear began to proliferate. Then came the all-too-familiar lockdowns and quarantines. Dr Rieux, the protagonist, and many say a version of Camus himself, fought doggedly against the bacterial infection. He did not care that his efforts would be a miniscule contribution to the overall tragedy. “There is no question of heroism in all this,” he stated. “It’s a matter of common decency.”

Oran was sealed and attempts were made to illegally leave. Some were shot and riots ensued. But Rieux remained as do others, all of whom helped Camus propagate his views on the human condition. He vividly described the merchant who stayed on to multiply his profits and also drew a lucid outline of the man he abhorred, Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest. The latter instance reflected Camus’ disdain of religion. The minister attributed the outbreak to the transgressions of Oran’s residents. This culminated in the death of a baby and the absurdity of the human race to give meaning and chart a valid course to our existence lies as dead as the baby in the novel.

Although a serum was tried at the end of October, the plague showed no signs of waning. But come January, the epidemic’s rage appeared to cease. The town gates opened and people cheered on as what many call ‘normal’ returned.

Is acceptance a virtue?

“But then why should we read a book as depressing as the times we are going through,” you may inquire? The aim was neither to tell you the tale or critique the book. But the reason for telling you The Plague enlightens, is like showing you darkness in order to recognise light. Camus himself disliked being called an ‘existentialist’ and nor is it writer’s intent to promote this school of thought.

Camus wrote an essay in 1955 on Sisyphus, a Greek mythological figure who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again. Sisyphus was sentenced to repeating this task for all of eternity. But he saw this task not as a hopeless, despairing exercise in futility, but as an acceptance of man’s plight on earth.

Who can deny that life is difficult, frail, uncertain, heart breaking, painful, lonely or unforgiving? Imagine Sisyphus walking down the mountain happy, having accepted the fact he must roll that boulder up again but without remorse or anger. Imagine him accepting it had to be done, content in the fact that he would have to do it again and again, and yet again.

And the boulder will not matter, and the pain in his muscles will not trouble, and he will bear the task of rolling the boulder up as man bears the tasks of losing work, loved ones, financial collapse, crippling disease, wars and Covid-19.

How alive are we?

How free were we without Covid? How independent? How happy? Are we not unconscious slaves of habit, of attitude, and  complacency? Are we not held captive by a neoliberal system that places so much importance on the material, money, status and society? How alive are we? Does it take hordes of people on a beach, or a mall, or a cricket match or a bar to make us feel alive? Does freedom lie in other places? Greece? The Maldives? Cocaine?

Pharmaceutical companies are working hard on vaccines, with one eye on their stocks no doubt, but work goes on all the same. Soon we may be free of this virus but should we make it to the other side of Covid, it would be criminal not to remember 2020 as a tumultuous reminder. That although we have landed craft on Mars and Musk may take you there someday, thousands upon thousands have died because of human limitations and sheer complacency.

Camus reflected, “Pestilence is so common; there have been so many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.” He added, “Everyone has inside himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.”


Robindra Subba

Mr. Subba is the owner of Himali Boarding School, Kurseong, West Bengal. He is fond of English literature and has directed some outstanding renditions of well known plays and operas, so much so that it has led many to suggest that Himali Boarding should rather be termed Himali Broadway. He is an academician par excellence and one with a penchant for fast cars.

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3 years ago

Wow, I love this piece.

Reply to  Minaxi
3 years ago

It’s an interesting piece about how the human psychology work. Mr Subba’s has written it very well given examples and a message for us. Kudos to the writer

Gayatri Rai
Gayatri Rai
3 years ago

Very interesting. An d as always we learn a lot from Mr Subba s take on life and living

Peter Rai
Peter Rai
3 years ago

Thought provoking.

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