“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.” –Albert Camus, The Plague
On the morning of Friday, March 13th 2020, I slept in. As a reward for finally catching up on school work, I allowed myself to sleep until two hours before my afternoon seminar. Upstairs, one of my housemates spent the morning preparing for what could be her first-ever post undergrad job, while the rest of my house had spent the morning drifting in and out of the house. Just after she left the house, dressed as the boss-ass babe I know she will become, I took my own walk down the street to pick up my morning (or now, afternoon) coffee. After returning to my house and packing my bag, I quickly checked my phone before leaving for campus to see the email stating Queen’s would no longer be holding on-campus classes. The remainder of my fourth year, I learned, would be held online due to the global outbreak of COVID-19. In what seemed like a matter of days, the novel coronavirus had spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, and was being classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. The way of life we were all well-accustomed to was over.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis that has swept the globe, it appears that almost everyone is grappling with how to make sense of the new normal we have been thrust into, largely due to the overall illusion we have long held that certain things in our lives have been shattered. In what seemed like merely a matter of days, plans I had made and taken for granted would no longer be taking place. The two grandson concerts I had purchased tickets for were either postponed indefinitely or cancelled altogether. Coffee dates with my friends were no longer a possibility, and any chance I had at dancing my heart out at Mod Night before the year ended had disappeared. The bottle of champagne that had been sitting on my house bar cart would no longer be popped in my backyard on my housemates’ last day of undergraduate classes, as there would no longer be a last day of undergrad for us to celebrate.
While the summer of 2020 had previously brought about the promise of several job prospects for myself and my graduating friends, the nationwide social distancing protocols have reduced these possibilities significantly, if not entirely eliminating several job opportunities altogether. From the cancellation of classes and events to the elimination of jobs, it is safe to say that we are facing a period of indefinite limbo. The unprecedented onset of the COVID-19 crisis has ultimately changed our lives in ways we never could have anticipated, and will likely continue to mould our futures in ways we can’t quite yet foresee. The anxiety around cultivating a new sense of normality is nearly impossible to avoid.
Despite the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 situation and the stress that it has imposed on people all over the world, the overall anxiety about the abrupt and complete upheaval of our daily lives is not something that is entirely new. In 1947, Algerian-born French philosopher Albert Camus published The Plague, a novel depicting the story of a plague that spreads from animals to humans in the city of Oran as a way to examine the ways in which disease outbreaks affect humanity.
The initial development of Camus’ novel bears a striking affinity to the way in which the events of COVID-19 have unfolded. The novel begins with an introduction of the city of Oran, an ordinary town, whose citizens are driven largely by their habits, and rarely deviate from a routine. Similar to the capitalistic motivations of Western society, the primary interest of the citizens of Oran is commerce. Camus describes the common routine of the populace merely as “doing business,” where citizens live primarily to increase financial capital, with basic leisure activities like going to the movies, travelling, and spending time with loved ones are generally reserved for weekends and time off.
The overall banality of Oran gradually slips away as Camus’ protagonist, a young doctor named Bernard Rieux, finds a dead rat in the middle of his apartment building. Dr. Rieux discovers more and more dead rats over the next few days as the news of the mass death of rats spreads quickly across town. Soon after the rats’ bodies are discovered, several citizens fall ill with a mysterious disease, and thus a plague sweeps through the city. Like COVID-19, the infection rate grows exponentially each day, and anxiety and panic begin to have an all-consuming effect on the population. Oran responds to the rampant virus spread similarly to the ways in which several nations worldwide have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic; it quickly closes its borders and goes into lockdown as the infection continues to spread and the death toll grows each day. Oran, like several countries during the current coronavirus pandemic, is no longer able to further expand the economy, and is further restricted from pursuing personal goals that are so often ignored in the name of capital gain. Oran is enveloped in disease, and life as it is known is indefinitely suspended.
We can see similarities between Camus’ fictional, yet frighteningly accurate depiction of the way in which pandemics affect individuals and communities. Under lockdown, the citizens of Oran dwell in their own personal suffering; no longer able to work, people find themselves longing to see their loved ones, itching to travel outside of their city borders, only to be barred from doing so by the enforced lockdown of the city.
In Kingston and at Queen’s, several students have been devastated by the loss of several milestone celebrations, cancelled summer backpacking and cottage trips, and inability to find jobs or internships to further sustain themselves and promote their careers. In the face of the great personal loss we have all felt, it can be easy to lose sight of our suffering as part of a larger, collective agony. Through our own anguish over the suspension of our lives, however, we can ultimately adapt to the reality of our situation.
In Oran, the populace adapts to the reality of their situation over time, and adopts an overall habit of despair, as people realize their physical vulnerabilities to disease, and the fragility of their previously held normal lives. They realize that aspects of our lives that appear as though they can be taken for granted — such as going to work, travelling across town to see a friend, or planning for a routine vacation — are constantly at risk of being suspended, and can occur at any moment due to the arrival of a new threat to humanity.
Although our own anxiety towards the COVID-19 crisis may have forced many of us to adopt a similar attitude of despair towards our own personal realities and overall fragility of our previous sense of normal, we can find a silver lining in our new normal. By realizing that things that are seemingly certain to us, whether that be starting our scheduled summer job on time or being able to celebrate our milestones with our loved ones by our side, we’re able to better understand our personal and collective vulnerabilities. We can realize that suffering in light of the current pandemic is experienced by everyone, and that no single individual is suffering from the pandemic in the same way as another person. In understanding suffering as being shared by everyone in several ways imaginable, we can find strength in facing COVID-19 together and empathizing for a worldwide loss of freedom and for the unique ways in which we may be suffering in light of the pandemic. By understanding suffering in the face of the COVID-19 situation, we can see that nobody is in fact free from risk of pestilence.
We may be sitting in our homes mourning the events of 2020 that we never got to experience; the lost milestone celebrations, jobs we will no longer be able to work, and summer trips we were forced to cancel. While we are all suffering our own separate, unique losses, it is important to remember that these losses will not be suffered alone. Our lives may not look the same as they did on the morning of March 13th, but the new normal we are now facing tells us to embrace the reality of our situation. Despite the fact that we are all hurting, we can find comfort in the fact that we are all suffering together, and hold out hope for a return to a previous kind of normal.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Margaux Rebourcet, Instagram– @marguax_reb, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/style/coronavirus-diaries-social-history.html