The United States has surpassed the grime milestone of 200,000 deaths, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects the loss of life to surpass 400,000 by New Year’s Day 2021 with 2,500 dying, daily.
In each of sixteen U.S. states, Covid-19 has killed more people than the 19 al-Qaeda affiliated hijackers killed during their September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Covid-19 death toll exceeds the September 11 death toll in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia. The state of New York’s Covid-19 death total, alone, is eleven-times that of 9/11. An additional 7 states have coronavirus death tolls exceeding 2,000, 7 states exceeding 1,000 and 9 states near or surpassing 500 deaths.
But these deaths are not the direct result of a human enemy. No bombs were dropped, no guns fired, and there are no terrorists to blame. While some have attempted to manufacture a human enemy, claiming the virus was cooked up in a Chinese laboratory, disease ecologist Peter Daszak and microbiologist Kristian Andersen argue that claim is unfounded and undermined by the evidence.
With no mastermind to blame, no conventional “enemy-other” directing this viral killing, the pandemic presents a host of unique challenges to our individual and collective humanity. Some have sought consolation, solidarity in suffering, and also insight from Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, as evidenced by increased book sales and numerous essays on the book published in the popular press.
Camus’ book functions as an invaluable guide for people ensconced in what seems to be an alternative reality few were prepared for. The book offers us vital insight necessary for making sense of a mounting death toll, fortifying moral integrity, and doing our part, both big and small, to save life.
A Lack of Political Leadership
The Plague tells the story of a lethal infectious disease spreading through the coastal town of Oran, during the 1940s. Dr. Bernard Rieux, a medical doctor, notices dead rats around town during his rounds to visit patients. As sick and dead rats proliferate Rieux encounters feverish and delirious patients whose bodies are marred by inflamed ganglia, and quickly die. He soon realizes that these are not isolated events and brings the likelihood of an epidemic to the attention of the authorities.
Dr. Rieux finds those in power reluctant to acknowledge the facts for fear of the disruptive and unpopular measures that would need to be taken, which eventually include complete isolation of the city from the outside world through armed boarder-control and closing of the town’s gates. When denial gives way to acceptance, Dr. Rieux takes the lead in treating patients as well as studying the disease to reduce its spread.
Political leaders’ willful apathy and refusal to act decisively is unambiguously reflected in the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response. On February 21, the White House Coronavirus Task Force determined that social distancing, even at the expense of economic disruption, was necessary to save lives. On February 23, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro issued his second memo to the National Security Council acknowledging the “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans” and kill “as many as 1-2 million” people.
Despite these dire warnings, Vice President Mike Pence joined cruise industry executives in Florida, on March 7, 2020, to reassure the public they should have no fear of traveling. “We want to be clear that it is safe for healthy Americans to travel,” Pence said. Within a week of Pence’s public pronouncement, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic (March 11), President Trump declared a national emergency (March 13), and the CDC issued a “no-sail” order (March 14).
Since acknowledging the pandemic, the administration has flagrantly mismanaged emergency responsiveness. A May 16 editorial in the medical journal, The Lancet, described the Trump administration’s response to Covid-19 as “inconsistent and incoherent.” The authors explained that the Trump administration had weakened the Center for Diseases Control and proved “obsessed with magic bullets—vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear” rather than “basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate” necessary to address the crisis.
The White House’s coronavirus advisor and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the nation “did not shut down entirely.” Fauci cited Florida as one of the states that failed to abide by “the guidelines and the recommendations to open up carefully and prudently.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was late to close access to public spaces including beaches and early to lift the lockdown before the spread of Covid was contained. Meanwhile Florida theme parks like Walt Disney World were permitted to reopen and did so on July 15 at the same time the state topped all states but California and New York in Covid-19 cases. On July 23, 2020 the state reported its highest single day death toll, 173, bringing the state’s total of deaths to over 5,300. Less than two months later the deaths have doubled and now approach 12,000.
The latest instance of the Trump administration’s lethal mismanagement of the Covid crisis is the guidance, expressed through the CDC, that testing for those exposed to someone with Covid but who are not symptomatic “do not necessarily need a test” unless they are vulnerable themselves or a health care provider.
These recommendations were made after newly published South Korean research further evidencing that asymptomatic Covid carriers have about the same amount of the virus in their bodies. Researchers estimate that about 30-percent of the population may get Covid without experiencing symptoms. Without the knowledge that they have Covid, the asymptomatic may unknowingly spread the virus to more vulnerable populations who will get sick or even die.
Early in Camus’ novel Rieux observes how surprised people are when plague sets in.
“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.”
This point illuminates the relevant scenery in American society.
Just as our nation was shocked by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, a shock felt all the more intensely because so few Americans were then, and are now, fully conscious of their nation’s devastating and destabilizing covert and military interventions around the world, so, too, were most caught off-guard by the Covid-19 pandemic. This despite the warnings of leading epidemiologists including Michael Osterholm who professed his concerns in 2005 and again in his 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. In late September Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, stated that the United States stills lacks a coordinated national coronavirus plan. “We have 50 state plans that in many cases are so different, so divided, and not based necessarily on good science. So yeah, we’ve got a long road ahead.”
A prime example of the United States’ ill-preparedness for the pandemic was the lack of available masks. Before reversing course in early April, the Center for Disease Control advised the general public not to wear masks unless they were notably sick. Reasons for this recommendation were that the masks could be worn incorrectly and that they would not prevent the wearer from getting sick. The reasons were inconsistent with the CDC’s other recommendations including handwashing, which is also ineffective if done incorrectly, and for healthy people to wear masks when caring for or living with those who are sick. The initial recommendation against mask wearing appeared to ignore the fact of a-symptomatic transmission. The available scholarship at the time indicated that even homemade masks was affective at stymying the spread of the disease.
In June Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted that the real reason the public was advised against wearing masks was due to the supply shortage and the attempt to ensure that limited supply made it to healthcare workers at greatest risk of getting the virus. Nearly five months into the pandemic news stories continue to abound of healthcare workers clamoring for personal protective equipment (PPE). Had our nation’s leaders heeded the recommendations of experts warning that such a health crisis was merely a matter of time then we could have stockpiled enough masks to ensure that not only were they were widely available.
Being Good Requires Effort
The Plague is not just a book about biological phenomena that eats away at physical wellbeing. It is also a story of an under-unacknowledged affliction—or syndrome of afflictions—central to the human condition itself. “I had plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here,” explains Jean Tarrou, a disillusioned but not defeatist former freedom fighter who had arrived in Oran a few weeks before the onset of plague. “Which is tantamount to saying I’m like everybody else. Only there are some people who don’t know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know and want to get out of it. Personally, I’ve always wanted to get out of it.”
The “plague” Tarrou refers to is a secularized conception of sin. To “have plague” is to be born with freedom, responsibility, and fallibility. These twin-sided gifts come with the capability for convenient rationalizations, apathy, ignorance, selfishness; in sum, the ingredients that propagate evil—plague.
In The Plague, Rieux, the narrator, observes that the people or Oran were unremarkably self-absorbed and “disbelieved in pestilences.” As such 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 will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
When Dr. Rieux tells his friends that people had died, suddenly, of plague, “the danger still seemed fantastically unreal” to them. As we’ve long known, human beings have great ability to delude themselves about that which they wish not to face.
Harm Without Malice: The Evil in Our Ignorance
The Plague’s culminating insight is that malice or ill will is not a necessary condition for the spread of evil. “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance,” explains Rieux, “and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.”
Such evil has the advantage of blending, facelessly, into the unmasked crowd of common sense: conventional, perfunctory thinking; life and business as usual. The full flowering of goodness and love, according to Rieux, exists only where ignorance has been overcome and “clear-sightedness” is present.
This notion of evil highlights how much we miss when we narrowly adjudicate guilt based on willful, premediated wrongdoing. Camus’ ethical claim is that moral decency requires something more than the absence of enmity and dehumanizing zealotry. We falsely believe being bad requires effort and being good results from embracing an “autopilot” morality. Yet the opposite for each is often true.
Sadly, there has been no shortage of ignorance, from the highest offices of power to those living in ordinary households, stoking the lethal flames of Covid-19.
On the same weekend Florida reported its fifth consecutive day reporting 10,000 new Covid cases—July 18, residents in and around St. Lucie County, Florida participated in the Treasure Coast Ribs and Wings Festival. Masks were not required and video of the event show some food servers and patrons not wearing them. The same weekend of the event CBS News reported 45 hospitals reached their intensive care unit (ICU) maximum capacities while St. Lucie County hospitals reported only 5-percent of their beds were available. Asked about his decision to go ahead with the event, organize Larry Burdgick told a local news outlet, “I was very concerned about having it at this time, but after seeing a lot of other things that are happening in the area, I decided this is the time, the time is right.”
Earlier in the pandemic, in March 2020, many of the young adults who descended upon South Florida beaches and strips actively ignored public health officials’ pleas to engage in social distancing and handwashing to help flatten the curve of the spreading coronavirus. Brianna Leeder of Wisconsin said, “I think they’re blowing it way out of proportion. I think it’s doing way too much.” Brady Sluder from Ohio said, “If I get corona I get corona. At the end of the day I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”
Multiple media outlets reported out-of-town Spring Breakers returning home and testing positive for the virus. Some were contrite after either getting sick or, in the case of Sluder, facing public criticism for his flippant remarks. Sluder acknowledged his ignorance in an apology published to Instagram. “I wasn’t aware of the severity of my actions and comments. I’d like to take this time to own up to the mistakes i’ve [sic] made and apologize to the people I’ve offended. Like many others, I have elderly people who I adore more than anything in the world and other family members who are at risk, and I understand how concerning this disease is for us all.”
Around the same time Spring Breakers took to the beach and flouted health officials’ warnings, Detroit bus driver, Jason Hargrove posted a video to social media. In the March 21, 2020 video, Hargrove complained about a passenger who carelessly coughed multiple times without covering her mouth and jeopardized everyone’s health on the bus. The video went viral but could not outpace the coronavirus which left Hargrove dead eleven days after posting his video.
More recently, the deaths of eight people have been traced to an August indoor wedding in Maine attended by about 60 people but which spread to 170. While temperatures were checked at the entrance, most attendees did not wear asks or adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Since the CDC’s belated endorsement of wearing masks, many in the public have willfully ignored health experts’ pleas, businesses’ policies, and even local government ordinances. Following an executive order requiring Texans to wear masks when in public, protesters held a Fourth of July “Shed the Mask, Don the Flag” rally in downtown Austin, Texas. Some Florida anti-mask wearers have filed a lawsuit in Palm Beach County and labeled masks “harmful medical devices.” Meanwhile numerous videos have been shared showing costumers of Costco, Trader Joes, Target, Walmart and other stores in full-blown meltdown over retail outlets requiring they don masks to protect themselves, workers, and other customers.
In September an anti-mask group held a flash mob in a South Florida Target, calling on shoppers to “take off the mask,” and the owner of a sports bar in West Melbourne, Florida enacted a policy requiring patrons not wear marks.
Lives Chosen Not to Save
A near universal commitment to wearing masks—95-percent—as achieved in Singapore, however, would fall the IHME’s projected January 1, 2021 death toll from 400,000 to 288,000 and save more than 120,000 lives. On the other hand, easing of mask-wearing and social distancing mandates would likely push the death toll to 620,000 and more than 12,000 daily deaths.
Some have responded to Covid-19 by advancing conspiracy theories claiming the pandemic is an elaborate hoax while others have claimed deaths are being misattributed to Covid-19 and overcounted. Such erroneous beliefs undermine commitment to the serious and difficult measures necessary to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.
Most anti-lockdown protestors, 2020 Spring Breakers, mask refusers, and those who have failed to cover their coughs in public were not trying to intentionally spread Covid-19 or hurt others. But Camus’ work reminds us that such an observation is beside the point. Plague does not need malice to survive and thrive. This lethal virus, like so many others of biological and social origins, feeds at the inane trough on ignorance and carelessness. There one always finds plenty of apologies, after the fact. But no apology has ever raised the dead.
On April 9, Hargrove’s wife, Desha wrote, “I’m pleading with the world, to please, if you do not have to be out here, stay home. I can’t stress enough that you don’t want to be this person sitting here with your loved one gone.” The indirect reply of some was a mid-April protest of the Michigan Governor’s executive stay-at-home and downplaying the severity of the pandemic. During “Operation Gridlock” protestors drove around the capital creating a traffic jam and honking their horns. Some protestors got out of their vehicles and waived signs and Trump and Confederate flags. More than a few brandished riffles. President Trump endorsed the protests tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”
On the last day of the month, as the state grappled with more than 3,000 Covid-19 deaths in fewer than two months, protestors once again clamored for a reopening of the state against the guidance of health experts. One protestor argued that the government was guilty of a double standard of shutting down businesses to prevent coronavirus deaths but not taking equally disruptive measures to address the flu or car crashes. Yet there are fewer than 1,000 annual car crash deaths in Michigan and were fewer than 35,000 flu-related deaths in the United States during the 2018-19 flu-season. In early September Michigan’s death toll lurched toward 7,000.
Ignorance of Political Authority
The ignorance of those in positions of political power and authority offer a potent reminder of the Socratic insight that those presumed to know the most are often the least knowledgeable. In July Gov. DeSantis argued brick-and-mortar schools should reopen by likening their reopening to the reopening of retain and fast-food establishments. “I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools. I want our kids to be able to minimize this education gap that I think has developed.” His critics were quick to highlight the difference between a brief and occasional shopping experience and a five-days-a-week all-day classroom experience.
In early April Georgia Governor Brian Kemp defended his delay in implementing state-wide shelter-in-place order saying that he had just learned the virus could be asymptomatically spread Yet National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of asymptomatic spread on January 30, stating: “In the beginning…it was not clear whether an asymptomatic person could transmit it to someone while they were asymptomatic. Now we know… that that is absolutely the case.” Governor Kemp, if he is to be believed, was ignorant of a matter he was obligated, by his position of service, to know about.
The triumph of ignorance among those tasked with being informed was also clear from statements of the U.S. Surgeon General. On January 30 the World Health Organization declared a world health emergency and Health and Human Services Secretary, Azar, head of the Coronavirus Task Force, reportedly called Trump to warn him of a possible pandemic, to which Trump responded by claiming “Azar was being alarmist.” The next day Azar declared a public health emergency in the United States.
On February 1, two days before the U.S. Army estimated that coronavirus could kill as many as 150,0000 Americans in a worst-case scenario, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams minimized the threat of covid-19. Adams tweeted: “Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ Risk is low for #coronavirus/ But high for the #flu So get your #FLUSHOT.” Adams was thus ignorant of the lethality of an illness he was entrusted by the public to understand. His voice was also amplified by many who wanted to ignore the lethal risks imposed by the virus.
On February 26, 2020, five days after his Coronavirus Task Force determined economically disruptive action including social distancing would be necessary to save lives, President Trump downplayed Covid-19 as “a flu.” The president also baselessly predicted that in “a couple of days” the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. would “be down to close to zero. We’re going down, not up. We’re going substantially down.” Three days later, February 29, Washington State reported the United States’ first death from COVID-19. The national death toll surpassed 1,000 within a month of Trump’s claim that cases of the virus would be eliminated in “days.” On April 4 the death toll exceeded 10,000. Within a week, on April 10, the virus claimed an additional 10,000 lives, raising the total to 22,038. The death toll surpassed 30,000 on April 14, 40,000 on April 19, 50,000 on April 23, 60,000 on April 29, and 70,000 on May 5. By the end of May the death toll passed 100,000.
The President’s claim that Covid-19 was just like the flu was revealed to be a willfully deceptive lie. During a February 7th interview, two weeks before he downplayed the virus as a flu, President Trump told journalist Bob Woodward the virus was “deadly stuff” and was “more deadly than even our strenuous flus.” In a March 19 interview, Trump admitted that he was intentionally making false statements to the public to prevent panic. “I wanted to play [the pandemic] down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” In that interview he also acknowledged that the virus detrimentally impacts people of varied ages, a fact he has frequently contradicted in public speeches.
A central insight of The Plague is that moral decency requires more than the excuse of “not knowing.” Even if we take the president at his word—that he repeatedly lies about the pandemic in order to prevent a panic—he is not absolved of moral failing and deserves to be held to full account. The president was repeatedly given the relevant information with which to help educate the public—a particularly important point given that many anti-mask advocates are vocal supporters of the president—and to enact an effective, comprehensive federal response to save innocent, vulnerable lives during the pandemic. Poor judgment, here, does not excuse the predictable resulting deaths.
Decency Requires Vigilance
Like Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, the erstwhile revolutionary, believes evil is often portrayed as its opposite. Through his involvement in revolutionary efforts for justice he learned that the human gift for rationalization made for eloquent, moralizing murderers: those all too often ready to kill for their cause, even at the expense of the principles upon which that cause was based. But his moral intuition concluded, “nothing in the world would induce me to accept any argument that justified such butcheries.”
Perhaps President Trump has really convinced himself that his response to the coronavirus pandemic has been “phenomenal” – “A+,” as he graded himself after the nation’s death toll passed 200,000. He may secretly believe that by deceiving the public about the efficacy of masks, social distancing measures, and the lethality of the virus that he somehow protected the nation’s economic wellbeing. But such rationalizations are precisely the kind Tarrou warned about, those that justify preventable deaths over which one has some influence.
Through the character of Tarrou, Camus teaches us that moral decency requires not only knowledge but also active, conscious love of the living and vigilant commitment not to betray them. This last point challenges us to recognize our fallibility, and acknowledge that we, ourselves, pose one of the greatest but easiest to overlook threats to what we claim to cherish. His contention is that “we all have plague” means that we all have the capacity to justify the unjustifiable. We all have the capacity to uncritically resign ourselves to that which may be expedient or desired but, if we dared to think more honestly and courageously, wrong.
Taking on Injustice’s Ally
Camus’ work challenges us to cast aside easy villains and return to the very difficult work of personal as well as social transformation by confronting our individual fallibility and ignorance. Our assumption that evil strictly springs from nefarious roots limits our awareness of injustice’s constant ally: ignorance and uncritical thought.
Camus’ work cautions us to realize the frequent success of stupidity.
“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 wrapped up in ourselves.”
One may find this to be a perfect frame through which to view the presidency of Donald Trump. Yet such an observation leads us back not only to the electorate that chose him but also to the broader social conditions that generated that electoral support and perhaps also to a certain piece of the human condition: an ongoing battle with ethical isolation, ignorance, egocentrism, and striving toward more fully developed solidarity—interbeing, at-one-ment, or agapic love—with others.
In contrast to brow-beating moralists and virtue signalers, Tarrou teaches us that moral decency isn’t due to our permanent, inherent goodness; it results from ongoing critical self-examination and effort. The default condition is plague. “I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death.”
Getting rid of plague is not easy and never permanent. The solution is nothing more than vigilance of empathy and critical thought:
“The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it….”
What we know is that each of us can activate everyday ethical heroism to save lives by uprooting our ignorance and vigilantly adhering to the best available guidance on combating coronavirus. Right now, that means avoiding large gatherings when possible, washing our hands frequently, wearing masks, and social distancing. It also means a refusal to retreat from the explicitly political terrain of public health.
We also know that apologies don’t raise the dead.
Jeffrey Nall, Ph.D. is a civically engaged father and professor. He teaches courses in philosophy and humanities courses for Indian River State College and the University of Central Florida. Nall. He also teaches courses for Florida Atlantic University’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department. He can be reached through www.JeffreyNall.com
 The awareness of the impact our beliefs have on others through our moral conduct led philosopher WK Clifford, in his 1877 essay, “The Ethics of Belief,” to develop the concept of “epistemic responsibility” the idea that we have a moral responsibility to ensure our beliefs are rationally justified. The reason our beliefs carry this moral weight is because, according to Clifford, few if any of our beliefs are exclusively personal. This is because our beliefs and expressions make an impact beyond our immediate personal lives, impacting the broader society. For example, adopting and then sharing the belief that covid-19 is a hoax or that doctors are intentionally falsely labeling patient death certificates has a reverberating effect of potentially undermining the vigilance and seriousness with which our communities need to responsibly address a pandemic. For more information on “epistemic responsibility” watch Crash Course Philosophy, “Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theories, & Epistemic Responsibility,” #14. This core idea was later discussed in different ways by thinkers including Antonio Gramsci who argued we all are philosophers in the basic sense we participate, however unconsciously, in the ebb and flow of beliefs which impact society and either uphold or undermine “culturally hegemonic” common sense. Indirectly intoning Clifford’s idea, feminist thinker Carol Hanisch argued that the “personal is political,” by which she meant that our private decision-making and thinking have implications for the broader society and the distribution of power.
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