Updated: Jan 1
On March 10th, Martha Pollack, President of Cornell University, announced in an email to the whole community the cancellation of all in-person lectures starting from the end of the month.
Since then, I have the impression of living in Albert Camus’ landmark 1947 novel La Peste.
In this fiction novel, Camus narrates the story of the city of Oran in Algeria as it is being quarantined following an outbreak of plague.
Through the lens of a prominent doctor, Bernard Rieux, the reader is transported in this social experiment where the subjects, a whole town, are forced to live with no contact whatsoever with the outside world and in constant fear of being infected by the disease.
More specifically, the reader hears from the stories of the people surrounding Doctor Rieux: a journalist trapped in Oran by the confinement, a man ready to help fight the disease as much as he can, a city clerk in charge of counting the sick and the dead, his neighbour who eventually attempts suicide, and a well-respected priest who has to make sense of the events from a religious perspective.
Written at the dawn of the Second World War, La Peste is seen by many as an allegory of the German occupation of France.
More than 70 years later, it appears that the situation we are currently living resembles that of Oran under quarantine. While large regions - the Hubei province in China, Italy, France etc- have been put under lockdown, the rest of the world trembles as uncertainty and unknown spark fear.
Every day, thanks to modern communication, each one of us receive notifications on the latest infection and death tolls. In Camus’ novel, Oran’s inhabitants wait fearfully for the “publication of the general statistics at the beginning of each week”, announced by the authorities and relayed by local newspapers.
Similarly to Oran when the city first got under lockdown, panic spreads fast among our fellow citizens, causing runs towards basic essential products in pharmacies and grocery stores. These create mass shortages of face masks, hand gel, pasta and even toilet paper.
As the city closes its gates and throughout the whole quarantine, desperate lovers try to escape the city to reunite with their loved ones, a scene that could have been witnessed in the last train leaving from Milan before lockdown a couple of days ago.
As the city finds itself completely sealed off from the rest of the world, society evolves to account for the new restrictions, and Oran’s inhabitants find new ways to see beauty in ordinary things, to enjoy themselves or to express their fear of the disease.
In this situation, Sartre’s landmark statement “never were we freer than during the German occupation” seems strangely accurate, as the main characters turn to find a new meaning for life in helping Doctor Rieux’s fight against the spread of the disease. On the other hand, others seek to organise their lives around new goals by running underground businesses, building new forms of solidarity or preparing for their escape.
In The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner reflects on the politics of fear, which also appears strangely contemporary in the wake of this new pandemic.
Thanks to social media and 24-hours broadcast TV, the large majority of world population is flooded by information concerning the disease, its spread and how governments handle it.
As for most news, these public health messages speak equally to our Gut and our Head, as Gardner would put it.
While the Gut will push some viewers to emotional distress, causing panic and perhaps even excitement, the Head will reason the same viewers by downgrading the importance of the disease, reason their probability of dying from it and relativize the reaction from their System 1.
For others, their Gut will downsize their risk of dying from the virus, while their Head will push them towards responsibility, compassion and solidarity.
Combining these signals from our Guts and Heads make for widely different reactions from each and every one of us, none of them being entirely exaggerating or downplaying the risks.
The question at a personal level comes down to this one: shall I self-quarantine until the disease is gone or shall I continue life as usual?
This internal tension is even more intense on a governmental scale. Governments all over the world try to weight the importance of the disease with the values of liberty and economic freedom.
Each government is torn by the question of whether ordering a national quarantine that would stop the disease from spreading, but annihilate citizen’s liberty of movement and economic activity, or delay the decision to a later point in time.
A few days ago, Laurent Joffrin, a French editorialist, compared the novel coronavirus outbreak to the Spanish Influenza, reminding readers that the disease that broke in 1917 wasn’t called so because it came from Spain.
In fact, because the Spanish government was not part of the First World War, it was the only country to release statistics on the virus.
Entangled in the deadliest war in its history, the rest of the Western world did not publicly recognize the importance of the outbreak until after the war, for fear that it would distract soldiers from fighting.
A few days ago, financial journalist Marc Fiorentino attempted to link the economic losses resulting from the recent stock market krach with the number of people who died from the disease. Aimed at computing the global cost of each life lost to the virus, this reflection raises a larger question.
The underlying rationale, at a national level, is a question that governments in 1917 thought to have answer, and that, perhaps fortunately, we do not want to raise in the midst of the crisis: how much is the human life worth to a government?
Unthinkable at the beginning of the outbreak, some governments have started to show signs of what the answer to this question would be for them.
Hence, we have seen in the past couple of days the opposite strategical, perhaps even philosophical, reactions of some governments to the crisis.
As a matter of fact, it appears that leaders from the United States, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands view the appropriate response to be somehow different from the French, Italian, Spanish and German governments, itself varying to some degree from Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan’s handling of the outbreak.
In the wake of larger environmental and existential threats, each nation will have to give its own answer to the question through the decisions they take.