Plagued: Misreading Camus in the Age of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Review of Camus's The Plague in the New York Times Book Review, August 1948
Right behind Covid-19, Camus fever has recently been sweeping the world, followed closely by new calls for social reform. I recently took a few hours off from writing my forthcoming book, The Algerian Dream, to pen this response to those trends. Update (June 9): A revised and expanded version of this article has just been published at Middle East Eye. Read it in full there. (Une traduction en français est également disponible. Cliquez ici pour lire.) Excerpt below:

Dark times call for great literature. At least that’s what the world’s newspaper editors and literati would have us believe.

Since the coronavirus pandemic emerged as a global menace earlier this spring, seemingly every publication on the planet has run an article comparing our times to that of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague—and recommending the book as a parable for our troubled times.

Last month, Steve Coll took his turn in the pages of the New Yorker. Alongside praise for Camus’ resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, Coll describes the author as a model of lucid rationality in crisis: “That Camus, writing in the mid-nineteen-forties, could conjure with such clarity, during an epidemic, a political morality that advocates for factual reporting, medical science, and public-health regimens seems astonishing.”

Rendering Algerians invisible

In an age when conspiracy theories run rampant online, and the US president peddles pseudo-science and snake oil from the Oval Office, Coll is right to champion a model anchored in reason. But is there no higher bar towards which we should strive today? A critical factor omitted by Camus and many of his modern admirers suggests an answer. ...

The Confusion Compounds the Contagion: 10 Lessons about our World from Covid-19

Sunday, May 3, 2020 | Kassel, Germany

We're all in Plato's cave these days. (Image from Olafur Eliasson's "Your Uncertain Shadow" installation)
Among the many shocks that the Covid-19 coronavirus has thrust upon our world in the past months, perhaps none is more disorienting than this: At the height of the information age, we are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for certainty, any certainty at all.

Until quite recently at least, you could ask any reasonable person when our species' technological, economic, scientific, and philosophical prowess and sophistication were greatest and reliably expect them to answer, "Right now, of course." To be honest, we looked down with pity upon our ancestors of a century ago, then still in the dark about so much, bludgeoning each other through World Wars, and suffering blindly through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. They were so disorganized, so undisciplined, so divided, so... primitive that they couldn't even properly count the dead from that catastrophe. (Estimates range from 17 to 100 million, the numerical equivalent of "who the hell knows.")

Plus ça change. Today, of course, we have a global internet, well established global health institutions, brilliant scientists worldwide, e-mail and translation software that allow them to communicate seamlessly. Surely we should be faring much better than our forebears. Yet months after the coronavirus's arrival, humanity wastes energy on nationalistic squabbling, suffers needless delays and deaths thanks to incompetent leaders, drowns truth in disinformation and conspiracy theories, and still knows shockingly little about the virus. How does it kill? Who does it kill? At what rate? How does it spread? Is it seasonal? How many has it infected? How many has it killed? Without answers to these most basic questions, measures to contain the virus's spread are just guesswork.

Maybe our predecessors back in 1918 weren't so ignorant after all. Maybe they were thinking what so many of us are today: It is the confusion—the astoundingly simple questions that remain unanswered, day after day, gnawing at us all and leaving our worst imaginations to run wild—that may be hardest to explain to future generations.