From Albert Camus's 'Plague' to the coronavirus

The coronavirus outbreak has brought out the best and worst in people.

AT A MASS prayer service at the Western Wall on Sunday, worshipers pray for those affected by coronavirus. The Hebrew on the poster reads, ‘The People of Israel prays for China.’ (photo credit: YAAKOV LEHMAN)
AT A MASS prayer service at the Western Wall on Sunday, worshipers pray for those affected by coronavirus. The Hebrew on the poster reads, ‘The People of Israel prays for China.’
(photo credit: YAAKOV LEHMAN)
Current events made me dust off my collection of Albert Camus books. The compendium has been sitting on my shelf for a while. The dust made me sneeze and I instantly reflected that it was lucky I was still in the comfort of my living room. If you sneeze while reading on a bus – or in any public place – you get dirty looks. Such looks don’t kill, but those who give them are acting out of deadly fear. Coronavirus, Covid-19, or whatever it is being called now, has spread panic around the global village.
I’m not immune to fear – nor presumably to the disease – but I think the world has gone overboard. And I can’t help but think that in part that’s due to the far nastier and older malady: xenophobia.
The reason I reached for my Camus was the desire to reread his extraordinary novel, The Plague (La Peste). I first read it in high school when friends were studying it in the original French. I picked it up again several years later – there’s an excellent translation by Stuart Gilbert – and found subtleties that I hadn’t perceived the first time. This week, too, there were new facets to be found. Nobel laureate-Camus, with such a distinct way of picking up on the essential characteristics and absurdities of human nature and life, is always relevant.
A short summary for those who haven’t read The Plague or have forgotten it. Published in 1947, it was considered an allegory for wartime Paris occupied by the Nazis. It starts with rats dying in their thousands on the streets and stairwells of the city of Oran in Algeria, still under French rule. Soon protagonist Dr. Rieux realizes that his patients, inflicted by excruciatingly painful swollen ganglions and a high fever, are victims of the return of bubonic plague. The sleepy city – remarkable only for its ordinariness, hot summers and obsession with commerce – is soon  quarantined. No one is allowed in or out. The good doctor battles on, suffering increasingly from compassion fatigue but nonetheless continuing to risk his life. Each of the main characters in the story struggles in their own way with the common threat and tries to leave their own testimony of dark times and human triumphs.
In its dystopian way, the novel also records the “fake news” produced by those in power and by the press. At the risk of publishing a spoiler, I’ll say that there is not a happy ending even though the epidemic eventually dies out. I couldn’t resist racing through to the end of the story late last night, to the stunning conclusion:
“And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what these jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city.”
CORONAVIRUS BROKE out, as we all now know, in the commerce-focused Wuhan, China. The authorities at first denied its presence – “The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all,” as Camus puts it. In the real-life, modern version, the doctor who first discovered the contagion and dared to publish it was vilified, and punished. Although his good name was later restored, Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, died from the very virus he had warned of.
More than 45 million ordinary Chinese, in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, were put in an unprecedented isolation, just as the Chinese New Year of the Rat commenced. Many have noted that such a massive quarantine – some 11 million in a tight lockdown in Wuhan alone – could only happen in a dictatorship.
The flu-like virus, which probably started from the wild animals sold as food in a local market, is known to spread quickly but ultimately its death toll is low (even if you can’t trust the Chinese authorities and state-run press). According to WHO figures, some 75,000 people have been infected and just over 2,014 have died, mainly in the Far East.
My heart went out to those people whose lives were halted, or destroyed, in an effort to stop the disease from spreading. International attention swiftly turned to the plight of the “accidental travelers” trapped aboard cruise ships. I felt for them, too. I would undoubtedly suffer from cabin fever under those circumstances, let alone suspecting that the disease would spread with greater ease in the confined area of a ship. I was pleased that the Israeli passengers were being evacuated – albeit to face more quarantine.
Let us remember that year-round there are doctors, nurses and other medical staff risking exposure to diseases – day in, day out – many of them poorly paid.
The virus has brought out the best and worst in people. We’ve all been exposed to the hysteria, if not the disease itself. When China sneezes, the whole world goes cold with fear. This might be one of the biggest collective panic attacks we’ve ever known. The disease should go down in history for that alone.
Throughout the West, anybody with Asian features immediately became suspect. Native Parisians of Asian ethnicity told how their French compatriots avoided sitting next to them on buses and on the Metro. The same story in London, Berlin and Barcelona. Had the disease started in the US or some other Western country, would train passengers have ignored seats next to all English-speakers?
The economic cost and repercussions are huge, affecting everything from tourism to online purchases, the construction industry and agriculture – and irrationally the sale of Corona beer. Not to mention the threat to the Tokyo Olympics. The world needs a collective hug – but is too scared.
Who remembers the panic just a couple of months ago at the lack of available flu vaccines in Israeli health funds? The worry about Covid-19 has wiped that out of our collective memory, despite the fact that flu has taken far more lives than coronavirus.
On the positive side, several Israeli companies are fighting the disease, by developing technology to drastically reduce the time needed to make a diagnosis and by inventing a device to help clear bronchial secretions without putting nurses at risk.
Ahead of the March 2 general election, the Central Elections Committee is seeking solutions to problems not experienced before – and that’s saying a lot as we head to the ballot box for the third time in a year. Special polling stations will be established for voters who are still in the required 14 days of isolation following their return from China, Thailand and other Asian countries. Efforts will be made to identify and combat possible manipulation of voter turnout by, for example, fake news and rumors about the risk of contamination.
By far my favorite coronavirus-related story this week was a truly only-in-Israel event – a special prayer initiative at the Western Wall on Sunday. Hundreds gathered at the holy site in Jerusalem to pray for victims of the virus and for an end to the epidemic. The ceremony was organized by Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in partnership with the Israeli branch of the US Orthodox Union.
“Millions and millions of people are going through tremendous suffering in China and outside China,” Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of the Israeli branch of the OU, told The Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Teracitin. “As Jews, we believe that God has the power to send healing. We are not doctors, but we can pray.”
The desire to be part of the cure for Covid-19 brought together an unusual and diverse crowd, united in prayers against pestilence. And that’s not to be sneezed at.