Camus’ The Plague: societal and moral questions for dealing with Corona

Not too long ago, right after the second world war, Albert Camus wrote his well-known book The Plague (French: La Peste). There was never the right moment to pick it as a must-read classic, as if the scare and suffering are still resonating from the book like poltergeist sounds. Why the Plague is a good pick nowadays is not only because we are living in times of a pandemic turning all aspects of life upside down. There is enough recent literature on that and certainly the diseases differ. What the book gives is an insight into the significance of social and moral strength needed to learn in order to cope and go through the unavoidability of existential losses. It meticulously dissects the actions taken in light of a catastrophe including the stages and patterns of ignorance, disbelief, panic and survival techniques. It is a reminder that no matter how (technologically, economically) advanced a society can be with a rich history of pandemics and wars, it always hits us unprepared and hard.

How can we draw social and moral lessons from a story as such? The book offers various portraits of individuals including what they value, their hopes, needs, and fears and their lifes in a seemingly unspectacular, self-absorbed city called Oran. These aspirations and needs are manifested in practical doings observable in daily life. Camus describes the way a city stimulates certain habits and routines and followingly shapes the kind of citizens individuals become, what they crave and need. There is a vague lethargic atmosphere in Oran, not much movement, not much interest or need to think about how to exist. A practical way to get into understanding habits and routines is by observing “how people work, love and die” (p.8). These sites of life provide cues on the values and the face of Oran’s society. All in all, before the Plague came upon Oran, life was valuable and bearable only when indulging into such “dull” habits and routines which force “unthoughtfulness and lack of time, in a way one loves without realizing it”. (p.9) It gives to think that not only individuals themselves shape who and what they become but also the role of the city including the social and moral infrastructure is enabling or constraining ways of living, being or feeling responsible, provoked, critical and fulfilled.

Let’s start with sickness and death as exemplary sites of life. Prior to the outbreak of the Plague, death was hidden and: “difficult to encounter. Difficulty is not the right word, it would be more concise to speak of Ungemütlichkeit, plain uncomfort. It is never comfortable to be sick, but there are cities and countries, who allow for, stand by sickness, in a way that one can let go. A sick person needs softness, be able to lean on, that is normal. But the extreme climatic conditions in Oran, the importance of business, the shabby environment, the quick dawn and the special entertainments – all that requires good health.” (p.9)

Following the potrayal of Oran, one can wonder about the place of death and sickness in our contemporary Western societies and where we are heading to. Emerging medical technologies such as precision medicine promising to optimize diagnostic and preventive measures rely on the idea to avoid harm and sickness (and earlier death). Certainly hardly anybody would oppose this ambition. But it is rarely questioned that promises of such kind flourish on basis of the (false) belief that life is controllable and harm avoidable. The impotence that we will face nontheless can hit us harder when believing to be technologically better equipped to face sickness – simultaneously, the endurance to go through loss that is needed to carry such weight requires a social and moral infrastructure that allows sickness and individual tragedies to have their place and legitimacy for existence.

What kind of life is lived and what kind of sickness is tolerated and to what extent – become relevant questions that give a glimps into the oscillating values of our comtemporary societies. Humbleness, according to Camus, is a lacking or underdeveloped virtue that is necessary for the ways we respond, anticipate, plan, invest, estimate capacities and limitations, and find fullfillment in what is already there but gets easily out of site or marginalised. Humbleness as a virtue is also important in a practical way: it helps to grow-out of an experienced loss and sickness. Camus describes humbleness not as a lack of willpower to achievement, development or potential, rather as a necessary antidote to the illusionary will to power.

Finally, different meanings of solidarity that emerged during the Plague in Oran underline human ability to stretch empathy from the known neighbour, friend, colleague or family to the unkown stranger. Driven by the belief that one needs to do what one cannot ignore (anymore), the unavoidability and experience of underlying fatal circumstances pushed attitudes, dispositions and capacities that people already had. In a sense, pandemics pull us back into a universal order, put us in place, whereas everything around seems to be out of order. For the need of re-adjustment it will be significant to sort out what social and moral infrasturucture go hand-in-hand with the changing economical and political re-ordering.

In times of Corona there has been lots of discussion about (new) forms of solidarity and what counts as such. The recent lockdown appears as a magnifying glas: it has amplified and made visible what is not working within social structures and lived (in)justices, and what individuals do or stop doing to overcome those hurdles. For the better and worse changes – Camus questions are relevant here, too: how do we work, love and die in our society? How can humbleness be cultivated as an antidote to outgrown will to power? Counting and weighing the worth of positive Corona test results, intensive care beds, economical losses, restrictive measures and lockdown against each other? What kind of social and moral infrastructure is supportive to deal with losses and impotence? How come ethical choices into play when being surrounded by suspicion about corona? (Non)compliance to rules, obligation towards others, your personal and/versus collective justifications (e.g. Do I adapt because I find it important or because of others? Do I act consistently? What if I transgress?). Portraits of our neighbours, colleagues, friends and strangers tell a lot about the changing social and moral face of our time. How can we understand and train our social and moral strength in order to cope and go through the unavoidable?

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