This essay on Camus’ “The Plague” is the first episode in “You Have to Say Something”, a personal podcast about ideas and culture from a libertarian or conservative perspective.
The name of the podcast comes from a short talk by Dainin Katagiri, a Zen teacher. It deals with case 46 of the Mumonkan, a collection of koans, where the teacher Sekiso asks, “How can you step forward from the top of a hundred foot pole?”
“How can we go forward from the top of the pole?” Katagiri asks. “We will die. Can we go backward? No, we cannot? What then, does it mean?”
I have lived away from my home country for seven years. At the time I left, I felt isolated in the midst of a great silence. I had long ago left the left, and in the time since then, I had watched it, and the culture at large, grow increasingly mad. Most of my friends from an earlier time had become engulfed in that madness. But I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t expect anyone would listen.
That is my hundred foot pole. How do you step forward? “You have to do something,” Katagiri says. You have to say something. I have to say something.
Reading The Plague in the time of coronavirus
The Wuhan coronavirus is not the plague.
That is the first thing to note when reading The Plague, by Albert Camus, as a fable for the present time.
When untreated, Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague, is fatal in 30% to 60% of bubonic plague cases, and all pneumonic plague cases, according to the WHO. When in Camus’ novel it strikes the Algerian city of Oran, we do not hear its precise fatality rate. But in the 14th century, plague killed more than half the population of many cities in Europe. In Florence it may have been as high as 80%.
By contrast, in most places the population fatality rate of today’s virus is well under 0.1%. The virus is less than one five hundredth as severe as the plague.
That severity should put some of the book’s observations in perspective, in case we to come to it for guidance. The big trap for the unwary is in the episode where Tarrou, the son of a lawyer who advocated for the death penalty, tells the narrator, Doctor Rieux, about his life and his moral commitment against death.
“On this earth there are pestilences and there are victims,” Tarrou says. “I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done.”
We are familiar with this stance from identity politicians who in every situation look for a victim and an oppressor, and take the victim’s side. Camus’ message was probably not meant to be that simple. Yet in a time of plague, the victims are clearly the dead and dying, and the costs of the disease are so great that many measures are worth it.
The Wuhan coronavirus is a disease whose cost is not unprecedented. Between 1 and 4 million people are estimated to have died in each of the flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968. In a world population of 7.8 billion, where 0.7% of people died of all causes in 2017, we can expect around 150,000 people to die every day. Today’s virus death toll of around 300,000 is only two days’ worth of normal mortality. And that is if one can even believe the figures, when as German doctor Sucharit Bhakdi has pointed out, in many places authorities have abandoned the usual practice of distinguishing death with a virus from death from a virus.
So the disease is not unprecedented. And yet we have taken unprecedented measures. In some countries, people may leave their homes only for permitted activities. Travel between countries, and sometimes between provinces, has ceased. Millions are out of work; GDP is down around a quarter in many places; small businesses are closing permanently. The UN has even warned that up to 27 million people in the developing world may die of hunger within a 90-day period due to the economic disruption of the pandemic, which is largely due to the response. Governments everywhere are violating their people’s natural rights to liberty with forced lockdowns—and in America, state governors are flouting the country’s cherished constitution.
The media collects stories of the virus from all around the world and presents them to us as a mass. But proportionally, the victims of the virus are few. The victims of the lockdown are all around us. So the prospect Camus presents of identifying victims and siding with them is not one of simply minimizing death from the virus at any cost to people at large.
This is not to say that we should not fight the virus. One of the messages of the novel is that one must fight the plague. Camus holds, with Sartre, that one must take action in life, and must take responsibility for that action.
But as Rieux tells the journalist Rambert, who is trying to flee the quarantined city, “the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.” And we must fight the virus with common decency too.
It is common decency to care for one’s friends, one’s family, and those in one’s face-to-face community who are at risk, and help protect them against the virus. In Camus’ novel, the success of measures against the plague hinges on everyone’s taking responsibility for them as individuals.
It is not common decency to demand that state power be used to imprison and impoverish the whole world to save one’s own skin.
And it is certainly not common decency to allow the probability that more will die from preventive measures than from a disease itself.
Elsewhere in the book, Tarrou asks Rieux, “Always tell me the exact truth.” And this is another theme of The Plague—that the plague must be fought with honesty.
When American health officials told the public that masks were not an effective preventive measure so those masks could be conserved for healthcare workers, that was not honesty. The alternative was there: tell the truth and, as the Czechs did, muster an army of volunteers to make millions of masks by hand within a matter of days.
When the Queensland chief medical officer advised her premier to close schools not because they posed a risk of infection but to send a message to the public that the virus was a serious matter, that was not honesty. The alternative was to be honest about the risks, and let people make their own decisions about what measures they should take.
Others will find other messages in The Plague. These are mine. Let’s now fight the virus with decency and honesty.