Above All, Decency: Camus and Coronavirus 

By Peter Di Re

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Photo by Sid Saxena on Unsplash

I roamed a local bookstore before last Christmas in search of a gift for my mother. I stopped at the works of a familiar writer, as I was curious to see what else he might have to offer. Lo and behold, in my hand I held an omen of the peculiar months to come; it was Albert Camus’s The Plague.

My copy sat dormant on a bookshelf until the nation’s coronavirus outbreak. Only then did I realize the coincidence of my purchase and decide to give the book a try. Camus’s skeletal yet poignant prose tells of a mysterious pestilence that strikes the unsuspecting city of Oran. The inhabitants must address the spreading contagion as they also attempt to cope with the pervading isolation, uncertainty, and death – the very same concerns we encounter in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, it is not difficult to spot the parallels between the outbreak in Oran and our current pandemic.

Accordingly, sales of The Plague have soared in recent months, as people ponder what lessons from the book they can apply to our current times. A key takeaway is this: in the face of relentless human suffering, we must strive for decency.

The protagonist, Doctor Rieux claims, "There's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.” When asked to define decency, Doctor Rieux says, for him, it means doing his job. Doctor Rieux’s job is not easy. He toils endlessly to alleviate the suffering of plague victims. The burden of his exhausting workload, as well as the grief of witnessing so much agony and death, weighs heavily on Doctor Rieux. Yet he persists; such is the essence of decency.

In the time of coronavirus, however, some have prioritized themselves, supplanting morals with personal interests. During the pandemic’s early months, consumers rushed to hoard supplies and even prospective medications. Even today, some people refuse to take proper precautions, such as wearing masks, and knowingly endanger themselves and others. In doing so, they renounce their personal responsibility of decency.

Their renunciation of basic decency can be discouraging. Furthermore, as the fight against coronavirus rages on, and as global deaths exceed one million, we are tempted to surrender ourselves to weariness and sorrow. Similar to Doctor Rieux, we must persevere nonetheless. Our job, so to speak, is simple. We wash our hands; we social distance; we wear masks; and we help our neighbor whenever possible. Such is also the nature of decency.

Decency is a virtue to cultivate and perpetuate in all times and circumstances. Although the book’s spike in popularity is obviously due to the coronavirus, readers of The Plague are led to a more abiding lesson about the never-ending need for decency. This message spans more than merely times of crises.

After all, Camus’s pestilence is a metaphor for the human condition. Doctor Rieux ponders, “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.” Oran’s plague acts as a magnifying glass through which Camus unearths the universality of suffering and death. In doing so, the existentialist author analyzes what it inherently means to be human.

The battle against this plague of human suffering feels unconquerable when we acknowledge its immensity, not only during coronavirus, but throughout all of time and space. In fact, in the book’s final passage, Doctor Rieux notes that the plague “never dies or disappears for good.” Rieux suggests that suffering indeed is indomitable, in a way. “Heroism and sanctity” are ideals that imply otherwise, and they are therefore unrealistic. Instead, and above all, we ought to strive for decency–the humble, and at times possibly even futile, pursuit of what is good and just.

Like the plague in Oran, the days of coronavirus will likely fade away–and with it, so will our omnipresent reminder of the angst and uncertainty of the human experience. However, Camus emphasizes that this symbolic pestilence that afflicts humanity will never vanish completely. Therefore, we must take the lessons from our current pandemic, and from Camus’s The Plague, and apply them to the rest of our lives. We must persist evermore, and so too must our decency.