Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – Albert Camus’ The Plague evokes the malign contagion of Trumpism — the mindless death cult that contaminates America with its disdain for facts, science, experience, democracy and human life. In Camus’ 1947 novel, the plague begins with infected rats invading the Algerian city of Oran. Like the Nazis who invaded France with a toxic ideology, the plague-carrying rats occupy the city, infect the population, provoke terror and suspicion, bring about police-enforced imprisonment in death camps, and unleash widespread suffering and death. Once the graves become overcrowded, the Oran authorities are forced to use mass burials and the crematoria leaving no doubt as to Camus’ historical reference. The Plague is both a grim account of a city under invisible siege by a pathogen as well as a vivid allegory of the then-recent Nazi occupation of wartime France, the so-called “brown plague.” The fascist plague that inspired the novel may have been defeated, but in the 80 years since The Plague was written, other varieties of political pestilence keep this book urgently relevant. “No one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences,” wrote Camus, a fighter in the French Resistance and an existentialist philosopher.
Calling Oran “a lost island of the damned,” Camus’ narrator Dr. Bernard Rieux elaborates the pandemic’s brutal psychic impact on Oran’s residents – their response to enforced quarantine, overcrowded hospitals, profiteering by plutocrats, shortages of food and medical supplies as well as the rising death toll and their own vulnerability to sickness. Camus explores those that succumb to the disease, those that exploit it, those that fight it and those whose inaction makes it worse. The inhumane reaction of the Oran authorities eerily echoes President Trump’s months-long denialist response, who said as late as February 26 when there were fifteen cases of Covid-19 in the U.S., that these would soon be “down to zero.” Less than six weeks later, there are over 300,000 cases and 9,000 deaths. In The Plague, early signs of a dangerous crisis manifest as hundreds of rats fall dead in the streets and several rat-bitten humans die alarmingly agonizing deaths. Seeing this, Dr. Rieux expresses outrage that the authorities are unprepared for the plague’s arrival, unwilling to recognize its existence, and unrealistic about its effects. He insists, “Everything points to its being the plague” and provides simple guidance: “Do your job as it should be done” — the exact manner in which Dr. Fauci describes his work. Neither Oran’s Prefect nor America’s President follows this advice.
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1952: Albert Camus The Post Existentialist – unpub. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
At a meeting of the health committee, Oran’s Prefect refers to the rat-deaths as a “false alarm,” arguing that their appearance might be the result of pranksters. He thought “it was unwise to jump to conclusions” and that a “wait-and-see” policy is best, reminiscent of Trump’s “Let’s see what happens” approach. Like Trump nervously watching the stock market, the Prefect doesn’t want to panic the citizens who, as described by Dr. Rieux, “work hard solely with the object of making money, doing business and getting rich.” Dr. Rieux tells the Prefect that “a policy of wait-and-see is unwise” and urges “rigorous prophylactic measures to prevent its killing off half the population of this town.” But the Prefect refuses because “there was no absolute certainty” that it was the plague.
Place de la République, Colonial Oran
As with Trump, the plague’s reality eventually becomes undeniable, but the response is ineffectual. The government orders the dead rats to be swept up from the streets — a “deratization” policy designed for good optics, but epidemiologically useless now that the plague was carried by fleas. The Prefect encourages the newspapers to rally the population that the pestilence is under control when it is not, just as Trump said, a month ago, “We have it totally under control.” The Oran city Prefect promotes the notion that 130 – 150 deaths would be a “victory” just as Trump — the person whose job is to keep Americans safe — callously said that 100,000 to 200,000 American deaths meant he had done an “altogether good job.” Like the Oran Prefect, the President has blood on his hands.
Trump ignored warnings from the highest levels of government when U.S. spy agencies sounded the alarm to the coronavirus threat as early as Jan. 3. He continued to minimize the virus threat for more than two months when its horrific effects were obvious across the globe and in the United States. He facilitated the uncontrolled, unseen spread of the virus by failing to build a reliable testing infrastructure that still remains spotty. After declaring a national emergency on March 13, his response remained slow and schizophrenic. Just as quack cures and superstitions entice the citizens of Oran, the use of untested and possibly unsafe drugs have been touted by Trump based on a “good feeling.” Though he rates his response a “10,” the result is a chaotic mess, with people whipsawed by contradictory messages which exacerbates efforts to mitigate the disease.
Like the Oran authorities, Trump views the pandemic as a public relations problem where his only responsibility is to manage a PR campaign. At a nightly propaganda TV show, he surrounds himself with scientists whose presence confers credibility, though Dr. Deborah Birx’ incessant, puppet-like nodding behind Trump diminishes her status while at least Dr. Fauci occasionally contradicts the ignoramus. Dr. Rieux would never associate himself with the Oran Prefect who he regards with disdain. Trump rambles incoherently while spewing lies, disinformation, grievances, media attacks and non-stop self-congratulations rather than compassion, honesty, and knowledge. As if speaking of Trump, Camus says in The Plague, “The most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance that fancies that it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”
Trump’s ignorance and incompetence is killing people. He created no comprehensive federal response with reliably consistent messaging. He failed to take control of the manufacture of ventilators and protective equipment. He has not nationalized the purchase and supply chain. With the federal government incapable of responding in a decisive and unified manner, individual governors and mayors have been forced to lead a patchwork of strategies that will increase the death toll. With no national stay-at-home mandate, red states were slow to lock down and nine states still have not done so, putting everyone at risk. Fighting the plague is an “all or nothing battle,” Dr. Rieux cautions the Oran authorities. “No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny. We must act in solidarity.” Trump’s denialist response and inaction led to a lost 70 days when a combination of wide-spread testing, selective quarantine, social distancing, ventilator manufacture, and increased production of personal protective equipment production all would have saved lives. Former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirchner, on the Deconstructed podcast with Mehdi Hasan, argued that Trump is criminally responsible for coronavirus deaths. “He acted in a grossly negligent way, and he failed to act,” said Kirchner. “And that failure was a product of gross negligence. He hit the homicide bonanza.”
Like the fascist pestilence symbolized in The Plague, the coronavirus is an evil infiltration into the American body politic that exposes a compromised immune system after three years of a malignant Trumpism — a political disease that left the nation contaminated and entirely unprepared for the economic and public health catastrophe created by the pandemic. As the coronavirus spread uncontrollably and undetected throughout the country, the Republican Party and its propaganda organs — the 21st century Rats of Oran — spread the Trumpism virus. They spent critical weeks blaming Democrats and the news media for exaggerating the epidemic as yet another “hoax” to undermine the President. Fox news vomited out dangerous misinformation to their elderly audience — average age 69, the demographic most at-risk for Covid-19. Fox news personalities said that it was no worse than the flu and not a big threat in the United States. Their magical thinking and wishful ignorance persists because many prefer not to believe the worst. Fox news viewers were easily susceptible to denialist propaganda and, as a consequence, more vulnerable to the lethal pathogen. Echoing the current diseased state of the Republican party under the Trumpism, Camus describes the inhabitants of the plague-ridden city as resigned to their fate, who begin a “long sleep” of “passive acquiescence,” “vast despondency,” and “utter apathy.” They’ve become “sleepwalkers,” who have lost “every trace of a critical spirit” and “all value judgments” and “resemble nothing at all.”
The Trumpism virus is a government-destroying pathogen that wipes out experts such as the White House’s global pandemic team, an early warning system whose professionals were crucial in coordinating the dozens of institutions — health agencies, hospitals, and state and local governments — that must respond in a crisis. The Trump administration also halted a $200 million early-warning program to train scientists in China and elsewhere to deal with a pandemic two months before the coronavirus spread through Wuhan. The name of the program? “PREDICT.” During the three years that the Trumpism disease infected the government, it has been crippled with vacancies, acting department chiefs and, in some cases, leaders whose professional backgrounds do not match up to the task of managing a pandemic.
A disgusting recent example is Trump putting his man-child son-in-law and business-failure Jared Kushner “in charge” of the government response. “This is dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy,” writes Michelle Goldberg in the NY Times. Kushner — an obnoxiously arrogant guy with no medical or disaster relief background — flopped in his first appearance Thursday at the Pandemic Reality Show. He contradicted NY Governor Cuomo’s need for ventilators and claimed the government stockpile did not belong to the states. The latter claim was contradicted by the government’s public health website. However, The official government webpage for the Strategic National Stockpile was altered Friday to seemingly reflect Kushner’s incorrect description of the emergency repository. Trumpism caused deaths and mismanaged the United States into being the globe’s coronavirus epicenter, on track to sustain the worst outbreak on earth.
The Oran plague eventually burns out through the tenacious persistence of Dr. Rieux, his sanitation team as well as a vaccine that works on some people. Oran celebrates. But as he listened to the cries of joy, Dr. Rieux knew that such joy is always imperiled: The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Camus stressed that defeat of the plague, both biological and political, is necessary but temporary. The coronavirus and Trumpism contagion prove him right. Both must be eradicated. In The Plague, Camus emphasized that the fight to contain and neutralize the plague necessitates the surrender of egocentric goals and self-satisfied tranquility. Evil can only be defeated by the collective intervention of people bound together in common cause. Though he was an atheist who believed that death renders the human condition meaningless and absurd, Camus argued that we create meaning and value in our lives by rebelling against oppressive forces and reducing human misery. Dr. Rieux rebels against the plague by working selflessly and tirelessly to save lives. Yet, all who fight against a pandemic know that their efforts increase the chances of their being infected, like our heroic health care workers who struggle to reduce suffering. But no matter what the odds or the personal danger, Camus urged us to embrace human solidarity and fight against the plagues of fascism, evil, and state injustice. Rieux is willing to “accept final defeat which is death rather than be deprived of the personal sacrament which is freedom. It’s better to live on one’s feet than to die on one’s knees.”
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