Quarantine Journals: Reading Albert Camus’s “The Plague” (Part 2)

Some dispatches from quarantine: it appears that countries around the world have taken note of China’s draconian measures towards containing the virus from its hotspot in Wuhan. Borders are closing. Communities are locked down. This quarantine has made hermits of us all.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about the Philippines, whose politicians have so far proven to be the best and the brightest in terms of breaking protocol they themselves instituted and downplaying the status of the outbreak at home despite an increasingly alarmed intelligentsia desperately sounding the alarm bells. But for whom does the bell toll? For all of us, I guess.

In the meantime, thanks to this administration’s talent for half-assing through critical situations like this, health workers and laborers continue to struggle through this lockdown, who are not only forced to expose themselves on a daily basis to a contagion that has thus far scored 11,000 lives, but are also forced to walk on the way there because we cancelled all forms of public transportation, and rather than fix this oversight, Duterte and company are stopping any and everyone who has the common moral sense to address it – unless they’re a bro.

For the rest of us privileged enough to actually stay at home, the quarantine is felt in long empty hours browsing through facebook timelines riddled with fake news and a Netflix catalogue that’s starting to show its limits. (That it does not have my comedy favorite of late, the genius Mike Judge’s newest offering, Silicon Valley, or its darker, more mature half-cousin, Halt And Catch Fire is a serious issue already, and makes me all the more conscious of my privileged position for having this sort of pet peeve at a time when everyone else is worrying about finding proper shelter during this outbreak, food shortages, and a possible global recession afterwards in case the virus hasn’t killed us all off.)

Our own barangay has taken to issuing households with “quarantine passes” in order to better regulate the flow of people on the streets. Without his usual access to social events, bored classmates, and amateur instagram models, my brother has taken to contriving all sorts of setups with scraps he can find at home just so he can continue to have subjects for his photography. He’s the one behind this week’s featured image, and I urge you all to go on over to his instagram right now before he runs out of things to take photos of during the lockdown.

Photo by Denzel Dayta.

Which finally brings me to this week’s topic: COVID-19 as read through French absurd philosopher Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague. To rewind a little, The Plague concerns itself with an ensemble cast (way ahead of you, Soderbergh) of characters when a plague epidemic sweeps through their nameless town in Oran. Though originally envisioned by its author as a symbolic take on the human condition, it now owes much of its timelessness to the metaphorical flexibility of contagions like the one presented in the book, and very much like the one we are experiencing now. Talking about the newfound popularity of the ten year-old film he collaborated on with Steven Soderbergh, Scott Z. Burns calls viruses “tracer bullets” through our society, saying, “they illuminate a lot of the problems we have.”

This exactly is the case for Camus’s Plague, although the problems he presents are more philosophical than political. In fact, if there’s any fault I can find with the book, it would be the honesty and efficiency that the nameless town’s local government, headed by The Prefect, demonstrates at the onset of the plague. The moment the town enters quarantine, a secretarial staff is deployed to report the progress of the plague, alerting residents on a weekly basis on the score, a protocol that seems to be dying nowadays. The Prefect also funds a skeletal group of volunteers to assist with plague operations. The Prefect doesn’t exactly play a character in this novel, and any encounter we have with the town’s local government comes only in the form of mandates and orders that, nevertheless, sound like reasonable decisions at a time that calls for immediate action. Not like, say, the Philippine government enacting a coronavirus relief fund that allocates 14 Billion (more than 50 percent) for fucking tourism. Tourism?? I know I’ve digressed too much in this blog post already but let me run the numbers by you real quick:

It is clear that Camus chose the setting of a plague-stricken town under quarantine for it’s closeness both literally and metaphorically to the problem of death. As its journalist character Rambert soon comes to learn, there is no escape from plague. Cut off from his lover back in Paris (Rambert was only visiting the town to gain information for a story he’s writing on the treatment of the Arab communities), he dives into the mess that is government bureaucracy to convince officials that he be allowed to return home. He even attempts to get the backing of the local doctor, Bernard Rieux, to vouch for his health, but exhausted as the doctor may be to bureaucratic concerns, and despite being cut off from his own wife who’s been dispatched for treatment to a sanatorium in a neighboring town, he decline’s Rambert’s request. Finding himself out of legal options, Rambert then attempts to contact some smugglers who are trying to profit off the plague, but even this falls apart. Finally, towards the end of the second part of the novel, Rambert gives up on his escape, and volunteers himself to the cause of fighting the plague.

This entire section concerning Rambert’s struggle with the authorities shined out for me in particular because it reads like a clear nod by Camus to Franz Kafka. The endless and paralyzing redundancies of bureaucracy is, after all, Kafka’s home turf. Rambert going through city official after city official, persuading them in vain that, because he does not technically live in the town, he shouldn’t be locked in with everyone else because of the plague, is very reminiscent of the very same process that K undergoes in trying to get into the titular castle in The Castle. But even without this literary connection, Rambert’s subplot continues to hold water for illuminating people’s tendency to distance themselves from relevant critical issues, taking the alternative position that it’s “other people’s problem.”

With the novel it’s very easy to concede Rambert’s blindness. It’s painfully obvious that because he is already inside the town during the quarantine, whether or not he actually owns permanent residence becomes moot. As Dr. Rieux points out for him, he may be healthy now, but his being inside and in constant contact with the plague makes all guarantees that he’ll continue to be so impossible. He is part of the town, and therefore part of the plague problem whether he likes it or not. And whatever makes Rambert’s position special isn’t really quite so special: for one he’s not the only non-resident trapped inside because of the quarantine (Jean Tarrou, the guy who comes up with the volunteer sanitary corps, is himself just a visitor), and he’s not the only one cut off from his loved one. The final stroke that makes Rambert realize his arrogance towards his situation comes when Tarrou points out, after accusing Tarrou and Rieux of failing to understand where he is coming from, that exactly like Rambert, the doctor has been cut off from his wife in the sanatorium.

In reality, the lines are grayer, which allows people to shirk off a lot of their social responsibilities unchallenged. This accounts for people who up to now take excuses for the government’s ineptitude to properly address the coronavirus outbreak but turn a sheer eye towards the critics demanding accountability. Follow protocol, cooperate, act as a united nation – these are calls that are only too easy to make from within the comforts of privilege. But what everyone should realize is that, by construction, we are all wound up together in this society, and the fate of the less privileged, while appearing distant and negligible to us, have a way of rippling back to our ivory towers, however high they may be. The government failing to enact – and follow – protocols to crack down on the disease will only further the medical and now financial downturn we are already far below in, and that is not something we should take lightly just because we’re “just citizens”. The 2019 novel coronavirus is dangerous not because it is as deadly as its predecessors SARS or EBOLA, but a majority of the cases are nonlethal and are often not even felt by the host. That means a great number of unsuspecting carriers going around and spreading the disease, eventually to someone who’ll fall critically ill and die. Unless Duterte’s administration comes to turns with the seriousness of this pandemic and stops dilly-dallying on half-assed policies, and finally begin mass-testing, we’ll only see our numbers reach new heights. We don’t need to be anything more than citizens – we need to demand action, now.

Talking about the government, I come to the second shining light in the novel’s middle section: the smugglers. When Rambert gives up on getting help altogether from the legal authorities, he turns to another important character, the mysterious Cottard. When we are first introduced to Cottard in the novel, he has just been frustrated off his attempt at suicide by his neighbor. The neighbor calls the doctor Rieux, and this prompts a police inquiry. As Rieux points out, the inquiry is only a formality, but Cottard seems extremely nonplussed. In this section, we find out that the suicide was a last, desperate attempt at escaping arrest from the police, as Cottard had just been implicated in a grave crime. But at the height of the plague, the authorities, beleaguered by the labor that pestilence demands, have shelved Cottard’s case for the present time. In the mean time he takes advantage of the quarantine by assembling a smuggling operations to get supplies – sometimes people – past the sentries. When he agrees to arrange for Rambert’s escape, Rambert naturally asks him why, if he has such resources, he won’t escape himself. Cottard explains that, in a way, the plague has become a sort of blessing for him. At least in the plague, he is no longer a criminal awaiting arrest.

This serves us a reminder that what may be utter death despair to a million other people is not necessarily the same for a privileged few. If one wonders why the government hasn’t done much to actually contain the disease, the reason of course is because they have much to benefit from it yet. After so many failed attempts at institutionalizing martial law in the Philippines, a move that past experience has forewarned our better citizens, Duterte has finally found his opening.

Just as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines breached the hundred mark, Duterte surrounded the whole of the metropolitan area not with doctors, not with specialists, not with scientists, but with military. Checkpoints were put up. A curfew was instituted. In a press release already the president has outlined penalties and threatened arrests, but never once mentioned testing, or mobilizing health centers and hospitals. Additional wards for public hospitals? Sanitary equipment and provisions for healthcare workers? Not a single mention. But he did find the time to thank his master Xi Jinping, whose regime, by the way, kept information regarding the outbreak until the last moment, when its spread was already accelerating to other countries, and praising his lapdogs in cabinet for the work(?) they’ve supposedly done. In the meantime workers across the country brave exposure fighting the disease amid meager resources and minimal support from the national government, the country’s economy is at a standstill with businesses forced to close and thousands of employees losing work, and our president is out throwing money at his social media troll army. If you’re looking for a reason why Duterte hasn’t made any concrete plans to actually resolve this problem other than a militarized quarantine and a medical budget that’s inexplicably only 11 percent for medical purposes – it’s because the virus has been good to him, and dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds them.

Tracer bullet indeed, the coronavirus outbreak has been quite efficient not just in infecting communities around the world, but also in revealing our leaders – and our neighbors – in their true light. And when one considers all this, one comes to wonder whether the problem is really the disease – or the people. Who knows, maybe mass extinction won’t be the worst thing to happen to us after all.

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