For my second article on Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, I intend to focus on the political aspect – and how it relates to the catastrophe that is the way the UK’s Conservative government has handled the Covid-19 crisis.
In The Plague, the “calamity” that befalls the citizens of fictionalised Oran is an allegory for France’s military defeat in 1940 and the subsequent Nazi rule.
The Afterword to my copy, by Tony Judt, states that “Camus’s account of the coming of rats echoed a widespread view of the divided condition of France itself in 1940: ‘It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then had been devouring it inside’.”
It seems, to This Writer, that the same could be said for the run-up to the UK general election of December 2019. Struggling under the minority governments of first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, the country had reached a political stalemate. The Tories had spent two years doing nothing but push for a departure from the European Union that every other political organisation in the country knew would harm the vast majority of people in the country. That situation was worsened after Johnson became prime minister, with the alleged backing of a shadowy group of hedge fund bosses who intended to make billions of pounds by betting on the collapse of many big-name businesses, if not the economy itself – which was stagnating while this drama drained the energy from all other aspects of politics.
When Johnson demanded an early election, the other parties agreed more out of exhaustion than for any other reason. They hoped that the ineptitude of the May Ministry, and the apparent corruption of the Johnson Ministry (so far) would tip the electorate into voting the Conservatives out.
But they miscalculated. Johnson was swept back into office with a massive 80-seat majority, on the strength of a simple slogan that he would “Get Brexit Done” (and never mind how damaging that departure would be) coupled with the result of an unremitting five-year campaign of hostility toward then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in which he was vilified as a Communist and an anti-Semite (neither claim bore even the remotest resemblance to the facts).
So, when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the UK in a tide that, at first, Johnson made absolutely no effort to control (he advocated a “herd immunity” strategy that suggested we should “take it on the chin”, allow as many people to be infected as possible, and hope thereby to produce enough people immune to the disease that the nation would be able to weather it without suffering much damage to the economy. It was our ability to generate money for the ruling class that was all-important to him, as exemplified by the comment attributed to his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, who asked who cares “if a few old people die”.
In these circumstances, could anybody be blamed for echoing the Jesuit priest Paneloux in his initial reaction: “My brethren, you have deserved it.”
In the first few weeks of Covid-19 penetration, people in the UK did not seem to realise what was happening – because we weren’t told, and because the Tory government had deliberately made itself unable to track the progress of the disease, let alone treat it. Plans had been allowed to fall out-of-date, advice to stock up on protective equipment had been ignored and testing for the disease was abandoned early, due to a shortage of testing kits. None of this was reported to the public in straight terms and the government refused to call the unfolding disaster by its proper name. Borders remained open and people continued in their businesses until it was too late. As in The Plague, “In appearance, nothing had changed”, “The town was inhabited by people asleep on their feet”.
But this could not go on for long. People notice when their friends and relatives start coughing and struggling to breathe, when their relatives are carted off to hospital, never to return. Pubs and shops were closing their doors, days before Johnson announced his limited lockdown, and before the limited death figures provided by UK hospitals alone turned the pandemic into a scandal.
Belatedly, and grudgingly, the Tories acted – imposing a limited lockdown. Even at its harshest, construction workers were still employed every day, along with other “key workers” as defined by the Tory government.
Most of us were told to stay at home and to observe strict guidance that kept us at least two metres away from anybody else (apart from the people who lived with us), and to follow rigid rules on cleanliness. The Conservative government and its servants considered itself to be above these rules, in the way that the Nazi regime imposed curfews and controls on the French (and, in The Plague, the authorities imposed ever-stricter controls on the townspeople): for example, Johnson himself caught Covid-19 by ignoring social distancing rules while, as I write this, Cummings is mired in a scandal over several journeys he took to his parents’ home town of Durham, including one apparently for his mother’s 71st birthday, and an Easter trip to a nearby castle. The outcry over this has been so great that he is unlikely to remain in-post, but this is a Tory government; he is expected to remain behind the scenes until he can be restored to an official position at a later date.
In many ways, the lockdown seems to have allowed the Tories to continue some of their darker business with less hindrance – and with an excuse. So the massively increased number of deaths in care homes went largely unreported in March and April, only coming to our attention after tens of thousands of people had died – representing a huge saving in benefit payments to “useless eaters”, as far as the Conservatives were concerned. Under their policies, people with Covid-19 had been deliberately shipped from hospitals into care homes that did not have the facilities to isolate them, and they provided no guidelines to restrict staff from moving between homes operated by the same employer, meaning that the virus had free movement between these otherwise-closed environments.
The care home deaths represented an increase of 31 per cent on normal levels for the same period of the year. Proportionately worse was the number of deaths among people with learning disabilities – 45 per cent. The Conservative government had actively attempted to suppress reporting of this, and it is not yet clear why ministers attempted to do so. Clearly, somebody has a guilty conscience.
Promises to help people suffering as a result of the lockdown have been broken willy-nilly. Disabled people claiming benefits have been forced to await the end of the lockdown on “assessment phase” pay while Department for Work and Pensions officers handled no less than two million new claims for Universal Credit as businesses laid off their workers. Those appealing against wrong decision have also been left to wait – unpaid. Vulnerable people, isolating in their homes, were promised home delivery of groceries – but the supermarkets’ lists were overloaded immediately, meaning many went without. The government itself promised parcels of essentials to households considered most in danger – but left many people with serious conditions off their lists, while even those who were considered eligible were forced to wait weeks before the unmarked boxes turned up.
Attempts to gain supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment) failed time and time again – often because the Tories ignored offers. Pleas to industrialists to build much-needed ventilators resulted in nothing – or in goods that were unusable. Promises to re-impose mass testing became a bad joke, most notably with the claim to be carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. As I write this, on May 24, it is unlikely that this target has yet been reached. Health Secretary Matt Hancock lied bare-faced to the public about it on April 30 but was caught out. Normally, a falsehood of this magnitude would be a resignation offence, but Tories like him have decided they are above normal demands and simply won’t go.
Contrast this behaviour with that of Neil Ferguson, the advisor who was found to have breached the “no travelling” rule to visit a lover, and resigned immediately the fact became public.
(And contrast that with the behaviour of Dominic Cummings after it was revealed that he had made two – possibly three – 260-mile journeys to Durham.)
All the while, as with the Nazis in World War II, the Tory propaganda machine has been working overtime.
When Johnson emerged from hospital after his (alleged) bout with Covid-19, the media treated it as though it was the Second Coming – ignoring the fact that his own idiocy had put him in intensive care in the first place. He was hailed as a hero, simply for being rich enough to be able to afford the best medical care in the country.
During his hospital stay, and throughout all the weeks thereafter, he has presided over the greatest peacetime slaughter of UK citizens in many generations. More than 62,000 excess deaths have taken place, leading to claims by protesters that has has killed more British people than the Blitz (this is correct, by the way: the death toll of the Blitz was 40,000 people).
But Tory propaganda, pushed by their puppets in the mainstream media, has it that their policies to deal with Covid-19 have been a massive success. The UK has suffered the second-largest number of deaths in the world, beaten only by the United States of America. In proportionate terms, taking into account the sizes of those two countries’ populations, the UK death toll has been the worst in the world.
The Tories continue to pump out the lie that they have done well, in slavish obedience to the “Big Lie” doctrine of the Nazi propagandist Goebbels – that if you repeat a lie often enough, the majority of people will accept it as the truth. They’re currently working to convince us that it will be safe to send our children back to school on June 1, while providing no evidence to support the claim. In fact, information from other countries suggests the exact opposite, and that any such move will lead to a second wave of Covid-19 infections that could be much worse than the first.
The real heroes of the lockdown are, as in The Plague, the ordinary people who have been doing what they can. Faceless, uninspiring perhaps, certainly unheroic: Shopping for neighbours who can’t go out, leaving the goods in their porch to ensure no contact that could transmit the infection; phoning (or using social media to contact) people who would otherwise be completely cut off from the rest of us, to make sure, not only that they have the means to survive, but also that they have the warmth of some human friendship; and alerting the authorities to suspected cases of infection so they can be handled at the earliest opportunity.
In the novel, the point is made again and again: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency”, “not doing it would have been incredible at the time”.
In the UK, in the coronavirus crisis, it goes both ways; we fight the disease with decency, and it’s how we fight the mistakes engendered by political corruption as well. It’s the only way.
Judt states, “Camus was uncomfortable with the smug myth of heroism that had grown up in post-war France, and he abhorred the tone of moral superiority with which self-styled former Resisters… looked down upon those who did nothing.” He says that, like the narrator of The Plague, the author refuses to “become an over-eloquent eulogist of a determination and heroism to which he attaches only a moderate degree of importance”.
This is what the people of the UK should do now. Those who can help, are helping – not because they want to be heroes, or praised as heroes by a government to whom heroism is nothing more than a public relations tool, but because “not doing it would have been incredible”.
But the Big Lie remains, because the Tories have access to our homes every day, via their daily Covid-19 briefing. And while many are watching it with increasing scepticism, if they’re still bothering at all, many more are accepting its messages unquestioningly, blind to the political slant that informs it.
Judt again: “In Camus’s view it was inertia, or ignorance, which accounted for people’s failure to act.” But he adds that “It does not follow from this that the plagues that humankind brings down upon itself are ‘natural’ or unavoidable”. So the effects of Covid-19 could have been much reduced if the UK had enjoyed a more responsible government. But that would have required the electorate to have demanded one. So Judt’s next comment, that “assigning responsibility for them [the plagues – either natural (Covid-19) or man-made (Conservative rule)] – and thus preventing them in the future – may not be an easy matter”, rings disturbingly true. And it leads to an even more disturbing question.
Judt goes on to describe the “‘banality of evil’… the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable [people] with clear consciences”. That suggestion seems to have been borne out by the behaviour of the Tories during the Covid-19 crisis.
But how do we stop it? How do we prevent it?
Much has been said of the kind of society we want after the current crisis is over, with claims that the current political status quo cannot be allowed to remain, having proven lacking. The same is said in The Plague. But in the book, “amnesia sets in” as soon as the crisis has passed. Life returns to the old routine and no attempt is made (at least in the pages of that novel) to change the status quo.
Are we afraid?
This is an idea that is not in the book, but is worth raising here: that people are less concerned with creating conditions that would increase their own (and others’) happiness and prosperity than with preventing a possible descent into unhappiness and ruin.
So they stay with the status quo. “Better the devil you know”, as the saying runs. But there is no status quo, in reality. Change happens, whether you want it or not. Consider the huge changes in our lives wrought by the internet and the Information Age, without which you would not be reading this now. Consider the changes to your personal well-being brought about by the financial crisis of 2008 and the Tory-wrought austerity of the following years, that depressed wages, pushed thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of benefit claimants to their deaths and stifled the economy. Unless you are a member of the ruling – Tory – class, you are far worse-off now than you would have been if the financial crisis had happened, but you were not responsible for it. You have simply been made to pay the price.
Current Tory plans mean that you will be made to pay the price of the Covid-19 crisis, too, with raids planned on the pension fund, increased taxes and the cancellation of pay rises for people working in the public sector – including the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff who have worked themselves into exhaustion, trying to save as many lives as possible.
Now is the time, while the lockdown, and the crisis, continues, for us to discuss the changes our society needs to make, to reward those who genuinely deserve it, rather than those who take advantage because they can, and to prevent harm falling on the blameless. What are you willing to do? How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to risk?
Then you will gain nothing.
And in the future, you are likely to lose far more.
Because, as Camus wrote, much as you might want to fall back into the comfort of complacency and forgetfulness, “the plague… never dies or vanishes entirely… it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing… it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and… perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city”.
And you will have no cure – because you didn’t bother to work on it when you had the chance.