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Column: Virtue of common decency

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/13/2020 10:30:13 PM
Modified: 6/13/2020 10:30:11 PM

Protests and unrest following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis dominate our national consciousness and push concern for the COVID-19 pandemic nearly offstage; but the racial and social injustice that now kindle the protests had already been unmasked by thoughtful analysis of the epidemic’s spread and fatality.

While privileged whites celebrated what they glibly called “their freedoms” in the Lake of the Ozarks, poor people of color — on reservations, in meat-packing plants, and deep in our inner-cities — continued to be infected by COVID-19 and to die at a disproportionate rate. Voices, frustrated by the partisan symbolism in the face mask/no face mask debate, urged the nation to finally address the alarming disparities in income and housing and health care that make a chimera of “American greatness.” As these issues drive throngs of angry people into the streets of our cities, it’s clear that we need better leaders than we have to steer us through the chaos and address injustice.

Recently, I reread my copy of Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, a narrative located in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s where first rats and then people begin dying from a mysterious disease. I first read this book in 1968, when I was in my early 20s, a time when I saw existential drama everywhere, particularly in the books I was reading. My parent’s generation, with the memory of World War II still fresh in their minds, would have read the book differently, seeing the plague as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France. Camus had been active in the French Resistance, but in his novel he makes no mention of the war, centering his story on the efforts of a single doctor and the people he encounters as he treats the disease.

The week I pulled my yellowed copy of The Plague (the price tag from 1968: $1.65) from the shelf, the evening news began night after night with charts, graphs and grim statistics, and I was curious how well Camus’ account of a disease’s effect on the human spirit would hold up. My impulse to turn to literature was hardly unique: On radio and television, panelists and commentators had been talking about pandemic literature and were hailing a new work of fiction by Lawrence Wright, The End of October, written before the COVID-19 outbreak and published on April 28, a time when deaths from the disease in the U.S. had passed 50,000. It turns out, for me at least, that The Plague holds up well, not so much for the epidemiology as for the psychological effects on people locked up with a fatal disease. For me, now 50 years further along in my life, the novel’s central allegory seems more about human mortality.

There are huge differences between Camus’ fictitious plague and our very real pandemic, most notably that the Oran he imagines is a walled city with sentries at the gate and the plague contained within. Some characters have loved ones on the outside, but they have no internet to FaceTime or Skype, no television or cellphones, and only a trickle of letters and news manages to pass in and out. Despite these differences, the fear, loneliness and frustration of the people of Oran are eerily similar to what we are experiencing today. Whenever I looked up from Camus’ book, I re-entered a world flooded with electronic messaging, where sound bites carry more weight than dialogue and where a whole person can be reduced to a derogatory epithet by our tweeting president. No wonder I eagerly returned to a novel where characters understand their own limitations and welcome the perspective of others.

Moving forward, I can’t imagine a world without the tools of technology available to me, but it’s important to see them as both devil and savior. Malice and misinformation spread as quickly as truth and information, and living deliberately in the Thoreau sense is a struggle. We seem stuck in mindless polarization where we are asked to make false choices, such as the one between the economy and public safety. To make wise choices, we need to take time to reflect and to read books about people who struggle with serious problems.

I keep thinking about a passage near the middle of Camus’ book. Three men made friends by their work fighting the plague are talking at the end of a long, wearying day, and their attention turns to the main character, Dr. Rieux, whose tireless attention to dying patients seems heroic to his friends. Rieux solemnly dismisses the notion of heroics, saying, “the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.” In our 2020 world we hear words like this expressed by EMTs interviewed on TV, by firefighters, nurses and doctors on the front line in disasters, and always these words sound like humble understatement. If you reflect on them, however, you will hear their biblical roots.

Common decency is missing in racial profiling, and missing when police overstep and use excessive force. Common decency is missing from the infrastructure of a nation where basic health care is not a right, and common decency is missing in racism of all kinds. How do we find our way to common decency in a world where public discourse is impulsive and where leaders say things they don’t believe just to be reelected? It won’t be easy to change the habits of adults or to convince young people coming of age in the era of memes and TikTok that there is value also in reflection and honest discourse, and in compassion and a shared sense of humanity; but a good place to start is in reading books where imperfect heroes struggle with serious problems.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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