Learning from The Plague

Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.

Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.

Albert Camus's exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.
Albert Camus’s exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.

The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.

But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.

Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.

Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:

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 those 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 that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

President Pathogen

If there was ever any doubt that Donald Trump’s misbegotten elevation to the presidency in 2016 was a flashing alarm for American democracy, the Covid-19 pandemic has eliminated it. This country’s institutions, infrastructure and governance were seriously ailing before Trump took office. Once he entered the White House, he and his supporters and enablers quickly made America sicker still—even before the first coronavirus case on our shores was diagnosed. Now he serves as a malignant pathogen enabling the spread of the disease.

A sick president. Photo: Al Drago for The New York Times.
A sick president. Photo: Al Drago for The New York Times.

The country’s tardy and inadequate response to the pandemic has been widely reported, even as Fox News and Trump’s right-wing followers tend to downplay its significance. Trump’s outrageous malfeasance with regard to the disease has been less widely covered.

Let’s look at one flagrant example, from Trump’s Friday news conference. Like his address to the nation on Wednesday evening, the news conference was meant to reassure Americans that everything was under control. Trump uttered the magic words “national emergency,” which was enough to generate a temporary stock market rebound. The markets assumed this meant competency would finally come to the fore and the coronavirus pandemic would now be dealt with appropriately. This was a faulty assumption.

Earlier, Trump had claimed that everyone who wanted a test could get one, which was an enormous and obvious lie. Rather than reassuring the country, he increased Americans’ fear and anxiety.

President Pathogen uttered more damaging falsehoods on Friday, chief among them this one: Google was designing a website—1700 engineers were working feverishly to complete it by Sunday evening—which would enable anyone to see whether they needed a test and, if they did, would direct them to a “convenient” drive-through testing center.

This was complete and utter bullshit. While there have been  reports outlining some of the individual lies involved in that claim, none of them adequately condemned the brazen degree of Trump’s mendacity. It boggles comprehension, simply because it is so glaringly obvious. Why would the President of the United States voice such easily disproved lies in public? What did he think would happen when Sunday evening rolled around and there was no such website to be seen, let alone any “convenient” drive-through testing centers?

I’ve often wondered, along with countless others, what accounts for Trump’s sick behavior. It’s easier to explain away his supporters (ignorance, desperately misplaced hope and/or personal gain) and enablers (sycophancy and/or personal gain). But what about Trump himself? Is he evil? Stupid? Incompetent? A complete sociopath? So incredibly self-involved as to believe any statement he makes must perforce be true?

I would surmise all of the above. What’s certain is that Trump is a malignant virus in America’s bloodstream and a greater threat to the country’s future than Covid-19 is. Like that disease, he and his cohort must be eradicated.