Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have been frustrated, depressed, and even fearful throughout this seemingly never-ending quarantine. However, we are slowly starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in this dark, bleak experience. With the arrival of vaccines that have been manufactured at the speed of light, a large number of America’s adult population has already been vaccinated. The numbers of COVID-19 cases are also slowly going down nationwide. Naturally, people are relieved that they are finally getting back to a normal state in their lives. However, is this really the end of the calamity? I would argue with this belief in a happy ending. During the pandemic, we have been through an emotional rollercoaster from practicing social distancing to marching in the streets fighting against systemic racism. We have also learned that death comes to anyone regardless of age, ethnicity, and gender. Then, why don’t we focus on society as a whole rather than ourselves? Why don’t we care about others in order to make our world a better place? The result of COVID-19 has especially made it evident that our actions locally, and even globally, directly affect others in society. Unfortunately, many of us try to attribute immoral events to external factors while looking at problems from a narrow-sighted point of view; we are used to making judgments about all kinds of terrible events and reaching selfish conclusions in favor of our own perspectives. As our responses to the current situation ripple through our society, we tend to take out our frustration, anger, and other negative emotions on external factors. Therefore, we must understand calamities cannot be attributed to any one person specifically and we should face these immoralities with a holistic approach.
This pandemic has given me the realization of what a plague is both literally and figuratively — that is, we already are and will continue to be living in a state of “plague” that is rampant in society. There is no hero nor saint when it comes to calamities like the pandemic; only death awaits us no matter how we live. Therefore, no one can escape from our fate which is the inevitability of our death, or a “plague”, in our society just like a disease. This concept of the underlying inescapable fate of our lives is called simply “the absurd” by Albert Camus’ in his book “The Plague”. Camus wrote about people who were trapped in a plague-ridden town, Oran, in French Algeria. What had happened to the people of Oran parallels the current pandemic; people assumed that the pandemic was just a bad dream which would come to an end and that it would not affect their lives, leading to selfish and irresponsible behavior. Camus suggests in his book that there is no God or cosmic order when it comes to the plague and we only share a common fate: to die. Contrary to what the general public expected, the novel coronavirus has devastated not only Americans but people worldwide just like the bubonic plague that swept through the French Algerian city. Camus explains our human tendency to view a pandemic as a far-fetched idea: “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” (37). The people of Oran tried to find a way to be comfortable in their lives and maintain their habitual lifestyles. This is also true for some Americans who have not complied with social norms and guidance from health officials during the pandemic. Therefore, it is important to consider how your actions affect society overall before you interpret immoralities in a self-centered way.
Moreover, the state of “plague” connotes the rationalization of immoralities that is rampant in society. People focus too much on their own suffering and as a result, they act irresponsibly and selfishly, affecting others negatively even in a violent way. This is an incurable disease as it seems inevitable for human beings to act this way. Camus wrote vividly how a person can become corrupt within this state of “plague”, which has always been true throughout human history. One of the characters who embody this reckless truth of human nature in Camus’ book is Cottard. Cottard is a naive, lonely, and paranoid person, who once tried to commit suicide shortly before the onset of the plague. He used to simply be afraid of punishment for a crime he had committed before; however, now that the authorities are busy dealing with the plague, Cottard no longer had to live hiding in the shadows. While the main character Rieux, who is a doctor, and his friend Tarrou are devoted to tirelessly taking care of the sick, Cottard selfishly profits through his smuggling business and is able to escape punishment by the authorities. His actions during the pandemic are a “plague”, within the plague that is true to American society today. He is an example of how some people use the pandemic as an opportunity to act out their worst desires.
The phenomenon of looking to exploit a problem for your own benefit spreads like a disease and even suppresses other people in a violent manner. The most prominent example is the recent increase in hate crimes towards members of the Asian American community. While the overall hate crime rate declined from 2019 to 2020, anti-Asian hate crime has increased by 150% in 2020 (Yam 2021). This is an extreme case of people attributing their frustrations with COVID-19 to Asian populations. Just like Cottard, those who blame all Asian people for causing the pandemic take a perspective that is entirely counterproductive to the good of society. Since we have always been suffering in this state of “plague”, why don’t we reject scapegoating and accept that we all experience the same human fate in this world?
Camus uses characters to illustrate how human beings react in the face of calamities. He specifically uses the character of Cottard to show a reaction of selfishness and violence. Since Cottard feels at ease and so takes advantage of the people around him during the plague, he is no longer able to recognize his wrongdoings. At the end of the plague, Cottard cannot accept the fact the plague is ending and fires his gun at police officers when they come to arrest him in his home. Unfortunately, Cottard chose a path that only served himself, neglecting his responsibility to contribute to the “plague”-ridden society. He believed his arrest could be attributed entirely to the plague and he overlooked important aspects of his life such as social solidarity and his responsibility as a citizen of Oran. Accordingly, using Cottard as an example, we can see that you should focus more on aiding society rather than what you can get out of the situation as we all live in a “plague”-stricken society. In everyday life, we try to create meaning as human beings within our society in which our actions influence others either negatively or positively. Cottard is just one example of a flaw in human nature in this “plague”-stricken world. If this is an unavoidable fate, why don’t we at least try to act for the betterment of our society as a whole?
Now that we are starting to see the ending of this seemingly ever-lasting pandemic, it is important to understand that we always will be living in a “plague”-stricken society in which we externalize calamities for our own selfish desires. Albert Camus criticizes our human tendency to make wrong attributions to self-serving conditions. The book “The Plague” is just a reminder of the mistakes we should avoid for the purpose of the improvement of the wider society.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Vintage Books, 1991.
Yam, Kimmy. “Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Increased by Nearly 150% in 2020, Mostly in N.Y. and L.A., New Report Says.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 Mar. 2021, www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-asian-hate-crimes-increased-nearly-150-2020-mostly-n-n1260264.