HOW DO WE live (not just survive) through a pandemic, watching our family and friends perish in the blight? It may be instructive for us, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, to mull over how Albert Camus and Mary
Shelley dealt with this question.
Camus’ novel is set in Oran, a French port on the Algerian coast, of the 1940s. Dead rats begin appearing in the town in the street, in garbage heaps, in cellars, on landings, in apartments—everywhere. Within three days, thousands of rats have been collected and burnt. Then they disappear. The concierge in the narrator Dr Rieux’s building breaks out in boils and dies. Some others follow suit. There is an air of disbelief among the town officials that a plague, which was supposed to have been eradicated, could infect them. They are reluctant to order an alert.
Sound familiar? Even in mid-March, despite the horrific figures of the infected and the dead emerging from Italy, the UK and the US were still dragging their feet about instituting a lockdown. So was India. Why? Perhaps for the reasons Camus indicates. ‘There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and war take people equally by surprise,’ says Dr Rieux. Because, as Camus says, a pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. Once hundreds begin to die from the plague, the town is locked down. It happens overnight. Even letters are not allowed. Social distancing, loneliness, exile, loss, despair and hope infect those (locals and visitors) who are stuck there.
In spare and unsentimental prose, Camus documents the human condition during the plague. He takes men fired by unlofty emotions, such as greed for wealth (a smuggler) and desperation to be reunited with a loved one even at the cost of being a plague-carrier (an exiled journalist), and makes them confront the pestilence. While for Camus, the plague had an allegorical meaning—the rise of fascism—we can read it in the literal sense in our current Covid-19 pandemic world.
IN THE CASE of The Last Man written two centuries ago, Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein) was grieving over the death of her beloved husband, the poet Percy B Shelley, and subsequently their dear friend, Lord Byron. It is a meditation on how to tackle grief alone. Set at the end of the 21st century, the three volumes of the book lead up to a question: how does the last man live knowing he may be the last one alive? What stops him from committing suicide in despair? Her question about how to live without companions is pertinent in today’s pandemic world of social distancing and isolation.
Percy Shelley and Lord Byron feature as thinly disguised characters in the tale where plague emerging from the East strikes Europe and finally England, now a republic after the king voluntarily gives up power and becomes the Earl of Windsor. The story is told by Lionel Verney (based on Mary Shelley), the son of the king’s disgraced friend. The orphaned Lionel and his sister (Perdita) meet and become friends with the 15-year-old new Earl of Windsor (Adrian, based on Percy Shelley). Lionel, who until then lived a rowdy life as a vagabond shepherd, a poacher and an unlettered savage, is struck by this offer of friendship. ‘This,’ Lionel thinks, ‘is power! Not to be strong of limb, hard of heart, ferocious and daring; but kind, compassionate and soft. I now began to be human.’ Adrian, meanwhile, is cast aside by his mother for Lord Raymond (based on Lord Byron)—a handsome and wealthy soldier who is to marry Idris, Adrian’s sister whom Lionel loves. Raymond though falls in love with Perdita and marries her; Lionel marries Idris; and Adrian suffers from unrequited love for a Greek princess. This band of unlikely but close friends tries to make a better world for the less fortunate, but fails. England of the late 21st century is mired in tussles between aristocrats, royalists and democrats; and when the plague strikes, the country is ill-prepared. The Protector of the Realm, a democrat, tells Adrian that it is every man for himself.
In Shelley’s 21st century England, ‘heroic Adrian, bred in luxury, offers to sacrifice himself for the public good’. The qualities of duty and honour rest with the aristocracy, while the commoners hew to ‘every man for himself’. The friends heroically direct the plague operations, open their mansions and woodlands to survivors fleeing the plague. But by now, it is evident that there is no safety from a pandemic. ‘I spread the whole world out on a map before me,’ says Lionel. ‘On no one spot or surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.’ Pestilence erases governments, royalty and the marketplace. The only equality left is that of misery. The band of friends is torn apart: Raymond dies in plague-ridden Constantinople; Perdita commits suicide; Idris dies of the plague; and Adrian and some others die in a shipwreck leaving Lionel as the Last Man.
Two centuries later, the ill-preparedness of countries to Covid-19 haunts us today. In the US, the Democrats had blocked an economic recovery bill because it did not have sufficient protection for workers; in England, a total lockdown was slow in coming because of conflicting advice. In India, the absence of initial testing on a massive scale may have artificially reduced the numbers, leading to a false sense of security. The janata curfew followed by the lockdown of the country since March 22nd came after the number of infections dramatically shot up.
CAMUS’ THEMES—OF powerlessness against a powerful and inexorable enemy, the inability of governments to act quickly to save their citizenry, the initial disbelief of the politicians and officials—strike at the essence of our problems today. How much can we depend on the government to protect us? In a pandemic, doesn’t action begin at home, with oneself?
‘The poor turned to the advice of their equals,’ Lionel notes in The Last Man and creates a network of local community leaders. In The Plague, a similar move occurs amongst the motley band: Dr Rieux, Tarrou, Grand and others who become friends as they set up a volunteers brigade to assist the plague victims and their families. ‘Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic,’ says the narrator, Dr Rieux. The smuggler, the journalist Rambert pining for his wife in Paris, an emotionless magistrate, a solitary statistician—all become gradually involved. ‘This business is everybody’s business,’ says Rambert and rejects the opportunity to escape despite spending weeks chalking the escape.
What makes such men, habitually motivated by baser emotions, choose to help? ‘On the whole men are more good than bad; that however is not the real point,’ says Dr Rieux. ‘There can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.’ These men are clear-sighted enough to realise that if they don’t work together, they will perish. To attain peace, one must follow the path of sympathy, says Tarrou, who thinks that each of us carries the plague (that is, fascist tendencies).
More recently, two survivors of the 1918 Spanish flu have echoed the need to work together. One of the survivors, Newman, urged people to lean on each other for support. “You have to be my crutch. I have to be yours. It’s been that way through every crisis we’ve had,” he said in The Guardian. “And then we find, when we do look back, that is what got us through it.”
In India too, citizen-volunteers are helping the police and the municipality to enforce the lockdown. In Gurugram, volunteer groups have been deployed to flag issues such as the plight of stranded migrant workers trying to return home from the construction site and coaxing shopkeepers of unessential items to close their shops.
Camus’ volunteers become weary, a danger that health workers worldwide are facing right now. When a man has only four hours of sleep, he isn’t sentimental, says the narrator. More dangerous still, they begin breaking the rules of hygiene. They were gambling on luck, and luck is not to be coerced. ‘Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only… for there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Everyone was part of people marking time.’
In the Covid-19 pandemic nobody knows how long we will have to practise social distancing; how long it will take for the vaccine to be made; how long cities and districts will have be locked down; whether we are going to get a steady supply of vegetables, milk, water; and most importantly, whether our livelihoods that finance our lives will be protected.
For us, Camus’ description of the human condition under a lockdown is eerily precise. Dr Rieux notes that the first thing the plague brought was the feeling of exile—the inability to articulate one’s deepest feelings, the absence of letters (none came in or went out), the terseness of telegrams that reduced all feelings to trite phrases such as ‘All is well’. If one tried to unburden himself to his neighbour, the reply he got usually wounded him. Because they were not talking of the same thing. Even the sincerest grief had to make do with the set phrases of ordinary conversation. ‘Each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.’
Now, working from home, for many, will bring on the sense of exile, tethered as we are to our jobs, our offices, our habits of meetings, chatting with our colleagues by the coffee machines and the sense of busyness accompanying these office jobs. But we are luckier than the inhabitants of Oran. We have virtual reality at our fingertips and can see and talk to our family, friends and colleagues online, but that comes with other problems.
At first, says Dr Rieux, people of Oran accepted the lockdown with more or less good grace, but soon they had a sense that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events. People flocked to predictions, to soothsayers, to saints; Nostradamus and St Odilia were consulted daily—and always with happy results.
We are marching along the same path of the Oran townsfolk. In the Covid-19 world, godmen and Hindu nationalists have proposed drinking cow urine, hot milk with raw turmeric (which contains curcumin) and rasam (pepper water).
ULTIMATELY DR RIEUX realises that all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life were knowledge and memories—of having known the plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it.
As Camus says, a pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away
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For Lionel in The Last Man too, it is hope that sustains him initially. But hope is finally extinguished. ‘I have endeavoured to school myself to fortitude… . It will not do… no one has entered Rome. None will ever come.’ He finally realises: ‘Neither hope nor joy are my pilots—restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on. I long to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear, to have some task, however slight or voluntary, for each day’s fulfilment.’
MANY OF US ARE still clinging to hope but it is fortitude and the discipline to follow the instructions about social distancing and hygiene that will sustain us in the long run. As an article in The New York Times said: ‘If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all… freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt.’
For the populist leaders, officials and doctors in the midst of managing the Covid-19 pandemic, the delicate balancing act is between giving hope without jeopardising government efforts to instil social distancing and thus slowing down the virus’ inexorable sprint to a community outbreak. Donald Trump’s temper tantrums are indications of this inability to maintain a balance.
But how to instil hope when the clear-sighted realise that a tsunami of cases may submerge our overburdened doctors, nurses and hospitals sooner than we think? Ultimately, Camus and Shelley propose shades of the same answer. Each of us has to practise fortitude, living day-to-day, having a task to fulfil each day and remembering those one loves.