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COVID-19: Hypocrisy and frightening helplessness

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As Nigeria and the world grapple with the impact of COVID-19, some salient issues raised by Albert Camus in his masterpiece, The Plague (1947), once again deserve our attention. Camus’ story is a simulation of reality depicting the struggle and perseverance of the people of Oran, in Algeria, during the outbreak of a plague epidemic in the city. As usual with fictional works, though the events represented in the story do not point to any real situations, the lessons learnt from the experience are timely; coincidentally, the events in Oran during the plague’s outbreak equates with the glooming situation in Nigeria today and in the near future. In this vein, excerpts will be quoted from the story to synchronise the past with the present.

The plaque in Oran was spread to humans through the fleas that feasted on the dead rats killed by the disease just as the source of the COVID-19 has been traced to animals. The death of the first victim in Camus’ story, M. Michel, set up a chain of activities in which the “perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic”. Of course, in this situation, the authority exhibited lethargic delays due to doubt; or the ‘not my portion syndrome’ in Nigeria today. As Camus puts it, “stupidity has a knack of getting its way”, and the doubt by the authority is just what the plague needs to spread. So, as the lower cadre of officials wait for orders from the authority instead of using their imagination, the statistics continue to rise. Finally, the authority declares the closure of all borders. This is the stage Nigeria is at the time of writing this article.

So far, the situation in Oran is identical to the one in Nigeria since the beginning of COVID-19. As the story of Oran during the plague continues to unfold in Camus’ account, the events become futuristic to those encountering them for the first time. During the closure of the border, the issue of deprivation becomes noticeable. Apart from the scarcity of the essentials of life, the unavoidable separation of loved ones begat the affliction of the feeling of exile; “that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time”. This lock-down of the society is the harbinger of this feeling and is to be expected soon in Nigeria. The feeling of loss, deprivation and absenteeism are the hallmark of this period since “none could count on any help from neighbour; each had to bear the load of his troubles alone”. Nevertheless, the thought of meeting loved ones again when the siege is over is a good side to this misfortune; this “despair waved them from panic”.

Physically, the lock-down sounds a death knell to commerce. In Camus’ simulation of events, the plague makes Oran to become a pariah setting. As the ships are turned away from berthing in the city so as not to transmit the disease, it becomes evident that “commerce, too, had died of plague”. At this stage, the reaction of the people is to abuse the government. As the figures add up, 321 in the fifth week and 345 a week later, “measures controlling the traffic and the food supply” were put in place. With the scarcity of basic necessities, the people of Oran resign to pleasurable living. Alcohol become the stable diet as a cafe even put up a slogan that “the best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine”; the same with the view in the southern part of Nigeria that the local gin, ogogoro, can prevent one from developing the symptoms of COVID-19. Though these changes are precipitous and impermanent, certain occurrences that are weird are brought to fore. The first is that of a retailer who hoards products with a view of making profits from them. At the end, he “died in hospital” as “several dozens of tin of meat” were discovered under his couch. This shows that “there’s no money in the plague, that’s sure”. Also, a man with all the symptoms of the plague run into the street and “flung himself on the first woman he met, and embraced her, yelling that he’d ‘got it’”. These are not the bizarre scenes we need in these trying times in Nigeria.

The impact of the plague epidemic on professionals is as devastating as on the populace of Oran. Raymond Rambert is an investigative journalist from France. With the closure of the borders of the town, Rambert is separated from his loved ones beyond his expectation. In consoling him, Dr. Rieux, one of those in the frontlines against the disease, explains that “it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is”. Rambert’s struggles against alienation, and exile becomes the battle of the citizens against abstraction and absent-mindedness. The religious leaders are not left in the lurch as the recrudescent plague enters a glum phase. It is at this stage that Rev. Father Paneloux of the Jesuit Order delivers his famous hypocritical sermon, stating at the beginning that “calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it”. He draws an analogy from the time of King Umberto when a plague ravaged Italy that “a good angel was made visible to human eyes, giving his order to an evil angel who bore a great hunting-spear, and bidding him strike the houses; and, as many strokes as he dealt a house, so many dead were carried out of it”.

Rev. Fr. Paneloux’s sermon was described by Dr. Bernard Rieux as having a two-fold effect on the people; some see it as bringing home the “fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment”. Others view the sermon as the failure of religion and therefore, the only hope left is escape from isolation. But for those in the frontlines, they believe that “if things go on as they are going…the whole town will be a madhouse” (85,86).

In Nigeria’s situation, as the lockdown continues, “scenes of violence” cannot be avoided but can only be controlled. Amidst incidences of ‘sheer lethargy’ and ‘discontent’, and the increasing number of deaths from the disease, the people will begin to experience a sense of bewilderment in place of routine pleasure since the “plague had killed all colours, vetoed pleasure”. As for Dr. Rieux in Camus’ story, pragmatism has taught him that if there is “an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; … this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on providence completely”.

But, in as much as man must continue to struggle, without God, man’s victory will be evanescent. There are absurd situations where the powers of providence become discernable. Such is the allusion by Tarrou, one of those in the frontlines, of the situation in a Persian town where plague wiped out the “entire population, with one exception. And the sole survivor was precisely the man whose job it was to wash the dead bodies, and who carried on throughout the epidemic”. As they say in the Delta, such is the ‘paradox of life’.

The major cause of trouble in the world is ignorance and the only way to fight the disease is clear-sightedness.

Therefore, as in the case in Nigeria, the only resource to save as much people as possible is to “fight the plague”. In this war, there is the need for homegrown vaccines and cures. This is what is represented by the rejection of the serum sent from France to inoculate the people of Oran as not being effective and the development of “anti-plague serum on the spot with the makeshift equipment” by Dr. Castel of Oran. This is the way to go in Nigeria; self-dependence in the development of medical supplies through imagination, improvisation and dedication. The reason is not farfetched. Outsiders can only say, as it is in the case of the situation in Oran that “Oran, we’re with you! … But … not to love or to die together”. This is because they are “too remote”. Also worthy of note is that as the borders are closed, smuggling becomes rampart. The transformation of several spaces, like the customs’ barrack, into makeshift hospital and isolation centres will become noticeable as COVID-19 continues to defy solution.

In these queer times, some positive examples need to be highlighted. One of these is the volunteer spirit of the ‘need greaters’. These are doctors and helpers who are always ready to serve where the need is greater as in Oran in the story, or certain isolation centers and hospitals in Nigeria today. More so, there is the example of Rambert, who despite still wishing to escape to meet his love, thereafter, decides to put humanity first before love. This is the triumph of common decency over heroism. However, a negative case is the exhibition of nihilism by Cottard, who believes that “there’s nothing to be done about it”. Cottard’s nihilism is heightened by the “excesses of living, burials of the dead, and the plight of parted lovers”.

Another negative experience is that in their fervor to wipe out the plague, the people of Oran resort to arson, burning the houses of those who had contacted the disease and taken into isolation. The plague, just like COVID-19, is an impartial judge who kills both the high and the low, white or black and rich or poor. On the part of the poor, hunger created an available pool of willing workers; thus the plague leads to poverty-induced employment where those laid-off from their former jobs are employed as sanitary officers to fight the plague despite their fear of the disease.

The effect of exile, alienation and separation is detachment and despair. Though the populace has resigned itself to the suffering, it soon discovers that nothing lasts forever and that the “habit of despair is worst than despair itself”. Ironically, Dr. Rieux, who was once regarded as a hope for the sick, is now seen as helpless like the other citizens. The helplessness of the government and religion is contrasted with humanism. The essence of the humanistic spirit is to work together as one to defeat the disease. The need to counter aloofness is buttressed with an incident during the Marseille plague described by Father Paneloux in his second sermon. This is the story of the Bishop of Belzunce who, after doing all he felt he could for the people, locked himself up in his palace after stocking lots of food and drinks inside. In anger, the people of Marseille piled dead bodies of plague victims round the palace and even rained dead bodies into the palace in order to infect the insensitive Bishop. So, in the situation we are in Nigeria today, no one is totally free from infection.

Finally, it should be stressed that at the time the plague starts to die down and the curve in the chart of the dead begins lowering is the most delicate time. This is the time individuals should be most careful as some notable personality in Camus’ story – Father Paneloux, Magistrate Othon’s child, Dr. Richard, Tarrou, all lost their lives in this period. At the end, in surmising his chronicle of the impact of the plague on Oran, Camus observes that “all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories”. This is because the “plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; it can lie dormant for years and years … the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city”.

On our part in Nigeria, our joy, like that of Oran, shall surely come again.

Unuajohwofia wrote from Warri, Delta State.


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