Opinion: the plague that Camus wrote about in 1947 is like the coronavirus and our modern political predicament

The first cases of coronavirus have now been recorded in the Republic of Ireland and this illness, which is teetering on the edge of becoming a pandemic, seems so difficult to understand. Yet what Albert Camus wrote in 1947 in his masterpiece on the rise of fascism, The Plague, seems to reverberate with an air of profundity that it shouldn't have today. "Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise."

The difficulty here resides in how diseases come like a bolt of lightning out of nowhere and disrupt the very social fabric of our lives without warning. This contingency is something that can be strongly felt in The Plague, which is as much about the spread of disease as the spread of totalitarianism, and is, therefore, a text in which we still have so much more to learn.

Indeed, all of this is exacerbated in Ireland, that place in which peace and tranquillity reign, where "that kind of thing doesn’t happen" but it often does, one way or the other. We often imagine ourselves as an impenetrable bastion of security, where the wider concerns and evils of the rest of the world are so foreign, so alien, that it is difficult to even get our heads around their very occurrence.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Living Word, Eamon Maher of the Franco-Irish Centre in TU Dublin on Albert Camus 

But as is too often seen in the past in this country, whether it be in the areas of child abuse or organised crime, it is often devastating to those that hitherto believed in it when this fragile illusion is broken. In this way, the collective cognitive dissonance of Irish society when it comes to serious issues nicely mirrors the small French Algerian town of Oran, that Camus describes as having previously being "so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins." 

The images of fever and environmental degradation that routinely appear on our TV screens are now not as alien as they might have been in the past in light of recent events. Yet they continue to be something that is often mediated and seen as not of much concern to our own society. As a consequence, the reaction has been quite predictable: "this is not serious", "do we need to really cancel the game?", "surely it is not that big of a deal?".

But this will not just go away because we choose to not think about it. Much like the serious threats to the existence of humankind, from climate change to the global rise of the far right, this which threatens the lives and livelihoods of our friends and families simply cannot be ignored. To revert to Camus again "we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away...".

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The School of Life's guide to Albert Camus

In this way the plague that Camus writes about is like the coronavirus and our modern political predicament. The first forward step is to recognise the severity of the situation before it is too late. Yet, in all of the aforementioned cases, Ireland is still woefully unprepared, not only in its failure to acknowledge the extent of these problems, but also in its ideas of the kinds of measures that are going to be needed in order to resolve them.  

Yet, despite this one of the few positive aspects to the appearance of these huge existential problems that threaten us today is the fact that they can often recreate ideas that were long ago thought to be reductant, such as the commons, what might we say could constitute the commons today? Primarily those areas and interests in which we are all communally invested, where we are all bound together in a single cause, be it preventing the resurgence of extremism, climate change or the spread of the coronavirus, these are all contexts in which our fates are inextricably bound together in a common pursuit. Like in The Plague, when the reality of the situation is realised, "no longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all."

It's my firm belief that what Camus wrote all those years ago continues to hold true today. The unlikely advantage of these calamities which befall us may be that we may eventually come to realise that, as soon as we recognise them as such, "there are more things to admire in men than to despise." There is so much that collectively can be done to tackle these problems, and a wealth of human courage and determination available to be drawn. We need only overcome the initial mistaken belief that there is no plague in order to be able to tap into the limitless well of sheer determination and grit which can allow us to collectively overcome it.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ