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There’s Nothing Less Conservative Than a Pandemic

As Camus foresaw, we don't like having our habits radically disrupted, even if it's ultimately the right thing to do.

A medical worker in overalls exits an ambulance outside the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Pandemic. Quarantine. Even days into a national emergency, those words still sound remote. They’re at once too exotic and too sterile, their strange syllables dissonant like a hospital tool dropped on the floor. We have few reference points for either—the former is a board game, the latter a horror movie almost no one remembers. That’s because pandemics and quarantines aren’t supposed to happen here. They might ravage dusty African villages and packed Asian slums, but not America, not in the year 2020.

Yet here they are, as what was once voyeuristic tragedy merges with reality. SARS and swine flu might have nipped at our psyches, but coronavirus is not a drill. The supermarket shelves are a desert, bereft of toilet paper, hand soap, produce, an unsettling reminder that however early you got there, someone else beat you to it. Terrifying figures blare off the TV: 2,150 dead in Italy, 3,500 infected in the United States, up to 1.7 million Americans could die. And then you walk outside and see people milling about as they always have, enjoying the vernal sunshine. It’s as though there are two dimensions, the news world and the world nearby, and you struggle to reconcile them, to determine which one is more real.

Even the most immersive board game won’t help much there. But literature can provide, and the best work of fiction ever written about an epidemic—at least since The Decameron—is The Plague by Albert Camus. (Part of working at TAC means you’re forever being out-hustled by Rod Dreher. Sorry, Rod!) Published in 1947 and set vaguely around that time, Camus’ novel tells the story of the French Algerian town of Oran, which suffers an outbreak of bubonic plague. The setting is not glamorous. Oran, Camus emphasizes, is ugly and boring; about the best that can be said of it is that riots are uncommon, as its people sleepwalk their way through life. Correspondingly, the characters are familiar sorts. Their eyes (mostly) stay level with what’s in front of them, rather than searching for some higher ideology or creed. They rarely speak in great gulps of dialogue; they rarely do much of anything you wouldn’t expect them to.

The Plague is first and foremost a story of habits, the everyday routines of the people of Oran, which are inevitably disrupted by the epidemic. Camus both celebrates and gently ridicules these rituals, from the man who every day goes out on his balcony and spits onto the cats below to the civil servant who dashes home after work and labors over a mysterious literary endeavor to the physician performing his rounds. So ingrained are these habits that the doctor, Bernard Rieux, confronted with early evidence of plague, simply can’t believe that such a devastating sickness could befall such a mundane place. Likewise is the rest of the populace slow to the uptake, even as dead rats begin to pile up in the streets. It isn’t until the town announces the collection of 8,000 such rats in a single day that they’re shaken out of their stupor.

These habits, whatever Camus might make of them, are inherently conservative. Man is not made for radical disruptions; he doesn’t like hearing, as CNN keeps haranguing us, that “life as we know it is about to change.” When George Will says we must be “open to perpetual dynamic change,” he might be stating a condition of the economy, but he is not capturing the human condition, which grows queasy under too much motion. We don’t like upheaval, yet we also can’t abide inertia, a state of standing still. Our habits are a kind of compromise between the two: they’re predictable yet they also keep us active. Those daily walks, those evening beers, even our commutes to work, provide a structure without which life would be intolerably chaotic.

This is why some have been so slow to grasp the severity of the coronavirus. It isn’t selfish individualism, low-information naivete, or American exceptionalism so much as the simple fact that we’re human. We’re reluctant to give up what we know in favor of the unfamiliar, even when the authorities say we must. And if we have to, we quickly seek to impose our habits again, like a template. Thus does Oran remain in denial even after it accepts the plague, as people question the statistics, harrumph that it will pass over quickly, “duped by our blind faith in the near future,” as Camus puts it. Once it’s clear that it won’t, once the town gates are locked, new habits begin to set in, even more monotonous than before. Residents wander the streets, read and reread railway schedules, anything to fend off the boredom.

Camus makes a further point of contrasting the plague’s cold abstractions with its flesh-and-blood victims. Enter Rambert, a journalist from Paris on assignment in Oran who ends up trapped there, unable to return home and see the woman he loves. When Rieux affirms the local travel ban, Rambert retorts, “You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.” It is rational, of course, that no one should leave the town, yet Rambert still smolders for his lover. The French ethos, reason and romance, is thus torn in two. So, for that matter, are we. Social distancing—that annoying new term—is necessary in the abstract to stop the coronavirus’s spread. Yet what of the rodeo vendor ruined by a single event cancelation? What of the college senior on the basketball team robbed of his season? What of other abstract rules, followed by mindless federal bureaucrats, that stalled for weeks the testing of very real coronavirus patients in Washington state?

In Oran, no one better embodies this clash between the abstract and the specific than the town priest, Father Paneloux. Early in the plague, Paneloux gives a homily that finds him channeling Pat Robertson, blaming the townspeople’s sins for the calamity and exhorting them to repent. (For what it’s worth, they don’t listen. Just as young people today defy the coronavirus and throng into bars, Oran’s youth spill into the streets, spend wildly, make love. That’s another part of the human condition: the craving for intimacy in the worst of times.) But that’s before Paneloux watches a young boy die horribly from the plague. The abstract of a people damned finds a human face, and Paneloux’s next homily is more muted. He acknowledges that his prior sermon lacked charity, talks of the boy, admits he can’t guarantee that eternal happiness will compensate for his ordeal. (Here Rieux wonders whether he’s flirting with heresy.) He says the choice now is between all or nothing. Either God exists and allowed that boy to suffer or he doesn’t, and Paneloux chooses to believe.

Right now the coronavirus still exists largely in the abstract. Most of us have (mercifully) not witnessed a coronavirus death. The pandemic is locked in news world, not the world nearby, and the weird effect is to make it feel similar to other breaking news stories. CNN thunders with the same graphics and music it uses for an election; Twitter partisans pounce to score points. In a nation addicted to crisis, it can be difficult to distinguish it from the rest of the American carnage. There’s also an unbearable preciousness to the coronavirus reaction, as journalists brag about their telecommutes while less privileged garbage men and grocers work on lest even more people die. On social media, hysteria has become a fashion, a kind of panic chic. Everyone virtue signals; the rare dissenter is declared a public danger. The instinct, as in wartime, grows totalitarian.

But again, that’s news world. What happens if coronavirus comes to the world nearby, the streets and sidewalks outside our windows? Hopefully we’ll respond with what Rieux names as the great weapon against plague: “common decency.” Hopefully, too, we’ll keep some historical context. The Great Plague of Milan killed half the residents of Verona. The Spanish flu took up to 100 million lives. Ironically, it’s our jumpy media and technology that may prevent the coronavirus from becoming anywhere near that bad. And whereas Thucydides described the mood in ancient Athens during their plague as one of “anomia,” meaning selfish, hedonistic, hopefully we will respond with charity and love.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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