The Pestilential Imagination: Albert Camus and Why Americans Finally Got Serious about COVID-19

“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one wll ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” — Albert Camus, The Plague

“What do you think the chances are that we will close down?” a colleague asked me last Tuesday, just four days ago.

“Slim to none,” I said. “But we have to prepare for any possible outcome.”

As an administrator of a small, private college, I had been leading our Coronavirus Task Force for the last several weeks and was responsible for fielding questions like this from students and faculty. Our small task force had been tracking the spread of the virus in Europe and Asia — and cancelling university-sponsored travel — for several weeks. But I still didn’t think it would reach epidemic proportions in the United States. Rationally I knew it would, but viscerally I just couldn’t imagine it happening.

The next day, in an emergency meeting of the executive staff, I recommended that we send our students home, recall those studying abroad, move all classes to an on-line environment, and have as many employees as possible work remotely. In less than 24 hours, these unthinkable precautions became inevitable. What changed?

The actual progress of the coronavirus in the United States did not suddenly alter. The number of confirmed cases had been rising steadily for several weeks. The trajectory had been predictable, and we did not reach any kind of clinical tipping point on Wednesday morning. There are still no reported cases anywhere near our campus or in our community.

But in a very tangible way, and at a very specific moment, it seemed real. By “it” I mean a global emergency and national crisis that would result in our shutting down and doing things that we had never done before. In a matter of hours, an abstract possibility became an obvious reality. We felt it. Tuesday afternoon, The Ohio State University announced its closure, followed closely by Indiana University, Purdue, Louisville, Kentucky, and Notre Dame — all schools within a few hours of our campus. Other schools, and other important people were taking this very seriously. That meant that it must be serious.

And that night, because my years as an English professor have left me with the delusion that literature matters, I started re-reading The Plague by Albert Camus. I had read the novel twice already, and I even taught it in an honors seminar before I became a soulless administrator. It had always been a favorite. Amazingly, though, I had never read it before as a novel about a plague.

That seems like a strange thing to say about a novel called “The Plague” that tells the story of, well, a plague. But plagues have never been a part of my actual existence before, so I read it merely as a novel of ideas: humanity’s ability to make meaning out of suffering despite the absence of an objective moral order — that sort of thing. This week, though, the existential-ish stuff didn’t matter. I wanted to know more about plagues. And I discovered that Camus had described what I have been feeling this week with frightening accuracy.

I want to focus here primarily on Part One of The Plague, which is the part that we are still living through. This is the part where the hero, Dr. Bernard Rieux, starts noticing dead rats throughout the city, followed by the deaths of several patients that he can’t quite find the reason for, but he can’t bring himself to say the word “plague” because it just doesn’t feel possible that such a thing could be happening in the 1940s in an absolutely ordinary town so he agrees to call it “a special type of fever, with inguinal complications.” As one does.

In the meantime, the narrator — who knows perfectly well that it is the plague, and so does the reader, since that is the name of the book — provides a running commentary on why the community has such a hard time putting all of the evidence into a context:

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.

In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves. (37)

What Camus imagines here is a failure of imagination. People can’t see a plague coming because — right up until the point that it is too late to do anything at all — everything is just so darn normal. Children are playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, people are going to movies, the weather is excellent, and only a bunch of rats and a few people nobody knows have been infected. How could this be a plague?

Once Rieux finally acknowledges what is happening, he tries to get a response from the government and is told, “Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.” Because of course he is. This is how most governments work. Plagues may be really bad later, but unfavorable attention is really bad now. And most bureaucracies run on the principle of never attracting unfavorable attention until it is absolutely necessary.

And this, too, is a failure of imagination. This becomes crystal clear when Rieux confronts the town’s prefect and demands action:

Rieux decided to ring up the Prefect.
“The regulations don’t go anywhere near far enough.”
“Yes,” the Prefect replied. “I’ve seen the statistics and, as you say, they’re most perturbing.”
“They’re more than perturbing; they’re conclusive.”
“I’ll ask government for orders.”
When Rieux next met Castel, the Prefect’s remark was still rankling.
“Orders!” he said scornfully. “When what’s needed is imagination.”

Here, I think, is the crux of the problem that America faced until the middle of last week: we could think about a major pandemic interrupting our lives in significant ways, but we couldn’t IMAGINE it happening — not in the sense of considering it a real possibility rather than an abstract thought experiment. The nations that have had the most success battling the coronavirus — Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore — experienced a major epidemic in 2003, the SARS virus. These countries did not need imagination because they had memory.

Talking about “imagination” this way is counterintuitive. We are used to seeing imagination as a species of optimism — the ability to conceive of a world where things are better and there is no war and people live in love and harmony. But there is more to imagination than just “all the people living for today” and the like. Imagination is the ability to conceive of, and perceive as real, something that one has never experienced. It is the creative human’s best response to the normalcy bias, or the powerful cognitive force that tells us that things will always be as they have always been.

Plagues are not normal. Americans haven’t really experienced a major pandemic since 1918, so we have no memory of shutting everything down and staying away from other people. And most of us would really not do it now. Staying home is hard. Most of us would rather not disrupt our lives for something that we cannot see. Even today, I look outside and see children playing on the lawn and people similing, and think that the world that has no business playing host to a pandemic.

Imagination is hard, but ideas, like viruses, are highly contageous. We can be influenced by other peoples’ imaginations, and we can be convinced to make them our own when people we consider important signal that they take something seriously. This happened last week when some of our nation’s governors — I am thinking particularly of Washington’s Jay Inslee and Ohio’s Mike DeWine—took bold stands that gave others permission to take the coronavirus seriously too. That set off a chain of dominoes that resulted in many institutions closing and millions of people staying home. That is how leadership works.

This is not a partisan issue — Governor Inslee is a Democrat and Governor DeWine is a Republican — but it is a political issue because marshalling a society’s resources to meet a crisis is precisely the sort of thing we have a government for. And the most important resources that our leaders can marshal are the hearts, minds, and imaginations of the people who pay attention to them. Politicians — the good ones at least — can be imagination leaders.

It works in reverse too. Politicians and thought leaders can do irreparable harm to a nation by confirming people’s cognitive biases and curtailing their imagination. We would all rather that it not be the plague. But sometimes it is, and when the worst is on its way it pays to have a few people around with either long memories or powerful imaginations — people who can assure the rest of us that wars and plagues happen and that the world will not always be what we think it has always been.

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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