Some Sunday reading: A long view of plagues from the seer of Champagnolle Road, the incomparable Ernest Dumas:

‘THE PLAGUE’: The cover of Camus’ first edition in French, a tale that Ernest Dumas finds instructive in the time of coronavirus.

Advertisement

While the country and the world seem to be within a few months of reaching a
low plateau, though maybe not an end, to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer that the
plague of 2020 will be the defining big event of all our lives, even those untouched by
tragedy, memorable in the same way that we can summon up in searing detail events
like the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
in 1963, if we were more than infants at the time.

Things changed forever in the life of the country and its democratic institutions
and in everyone’s perspective about their land—not the level of patriotism necessarily
but in our national confidence and how we expected those institutions to work. It will be
the same with—let’s go ahead and call it the Trump Pandemic, because he has worked
hard for and earned the sobriquet.

Advertisement

The experts are speculating every day about how the pandemic will change the
country, the world and our individual lives—a retrenchment of the interconnected global
economy that the United States, starting with Richard Nixon, largely built; the growth of
authoritarianism in even democratic societies, including the United States; the speeding
loss of individual privacy that supposedly was protected by the Constitution; and last, for
perhaps either good or ill, the loss of naïveté about what science has in store for us through the climate and the enduring scourge of germs. The last came especially hard for Donald Trump, although it is still not obvious that the lesson will ever sink in. Like many Americans, he didn’t absorb his biology class’s unit on the earth’s carbon cycle.

The rearrival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus sent old literature majors, especially from the
’50s generation, to the bookshelves to retrieve musty paperbacks of The Plague, the 1948 novel that probably won the Frenchman Albert Camus the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and that was required reading in courses on the modern novel. Camus had studied the history of the bubonic plague, known as the “Black Death,” which killed a third of the people on the European continent and a fourth of the people of London in the 1600s. He carried that knowledge to a fictional siege of the modern Algerian port of Oran on the Mediterranean coast. Narrated by a fictional French doctor, the story recounts the appearance of bloody rats dying on the streets and then the transfer of the infection, through gnats, to people. Townspeople, along with the leaders, first denied its existence and then its seriousness until it raged out of control.

Advertisement

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world,” the doctor wrote, “yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue
sky.”

Anyone who reads Camus today, especially if they live in the congested boroughs and
hospitals and prisons of New York, New Jersey or New Orleans where corpses are thrown onto sidewalks and into mass trenches, will think they are reading some of the daily accounts in March and April. It is a study of the psychological effects of a plague, the lockdown of a whole society and the singular relationship of love and death. The doctor explores the impact of the plague on six of his friends, who are compelled to abandon their own life pursuits and loves and join him in the gruesome and thankless job of treating or ministering to the dying and the loved ones who are separated by the town’s mandatory quarantines. The doctor, who lost his beloved wife, and a visiting journalist survived. The others died, including a gentle priest who had publicly mourned that the plague was God’s vengeance upon a sinful society.

Mistakes that were made at first proved to be deadly, the doctor bruited, but they were the
result of ignorance and doubt, not planning. “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence,” he said. It was “an ignorance that fancies that it knows everything.”

Donald Trump made himself the central figure in a worldwide plague by a ‘truly heroic campaign of self-promotion.’

Advertisement

Camus could be describing our predicament today, and not just Donald Trump, who just
happens to have made himself the central figure in the plague worldwide, by a truly heroic
campaign of self-promotion. His shortcomings, documented over and over in his own dauntless daily public appearances and tweets, were not by plan or stealth, as some of his sharpest critics would have us believe, but simple ignorance. His mammoth failings as a leader arise not from any ideology or stealth. Trump just didn’t know much. He knew little about the world, history or his government, as his chief of staff, the other old generals or his early cabinet members learned at the Pearl Harbor celebration, Pentagon briefings or on scores of other occasions. His first secretary of state, who was picked for the job because of his reputed friendship with Vladimir Putin, was reported to have called the president a moron and never denied it.

If you don’t trust science at all, unless it’s your doctor telling you how to avoid a deathly
illness, why would you have paid any attention to the world’s scientists warning of coming
pandemics when ancient viruses slip the bonds of the animal kingdom like bats and rodents and latch on to human cells. Why would he have taken notice of the H5N1 threat in 2005 or the more serious H1N1 swine flu in 2009? Or the Ebola scare, when President Obama organized Europe and other advanced nations to help track and stamp out the Ebola infections in Africa before they spread across Africa and into the United States. Those were deadlier diseases than COVID-19 and, luckily, were tamed before they did much harm in America. What makes COVID-19 scarier, of course, is that it is transmitted so easily, not by sex or intimate contact with another human or diseased animal but by simple proximity and touch.

Trump is not alone in having dismissed the threat or hid it until it was too late, in China,
other nations around the globe or in the American states. He made it his virus by seeing it first as a threat to his re-election and then by almost daily reversals. One day he sees the virus, the economic calamity it causes, or the economic reclamation as first a political plus and then as a negative. Seeing the coming economic recovery as a plus for his re-election, he demanded that he be the boss and then, a day later, fearing the perils of blame for a recurrence of the virus or else the failure of recovery, he wanted the governors and locals to take the blame. Either way, his own political welfare was always the object.

So the propaganda war, which includes much of the media, is over who is to blame for all
the failures—the proven ones and all those that are sure to follow. The United States, the most powerful, affluent and advanced nation in the world in every field, has more infections and more deaths than much of the rest of the world combined, although it is on the other side of the globe from the China province where it began and was for a while hidden by the world’s most powerful dictatorship.

Ignorance, not malevolence, is behind most great tragedies.

History will eventually apportion the blame, as it always does, and Donald Trump and many others will share in it. Its effect on the forthcoming election is already apparent. Ignorance, not malevolence, is behind most great tragedies. Three thousand deaths in the 9/11 attacks might have been avoided if George W. Bush had paid attention to his daily security
briefings about a terror attack from the air and Saudi flight training. Three hundred soldiers and diplomatic people might have been saved from the attack on a military peacekeeping force in Lebanon in 1983 if President Reagan had taken greater care in sending them there with virtually no security arrangements. Trump may merit no greater blame than Bush or Reagan should have shared. They got none.

What is important is that we—and especially our leaders—have learned something from
the COVID-19 crisis. Effective treatment and probably a vaccine for the COVID-19 are coming, but no one knows if it will be permanent like the measles vaccine or whether the endless mutations of the virus will prove to be evasive and far deadlier.

Camus’s doctor ended his account of the plague with a warning that could be aimed at us.
He described the jubilant crowds in the city upon the sudden realization that the plague had disappeared with greater suddenness than when it came. The crowd did not know but could have learned from the books. The plague bacillus (like a coronavirus) never dies. It lies dormant for years in bedrooms, bookshelves, trunks, cellars and unbeknownst places “and the day would come, when for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rise up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”