by David Sanders
I have a thin monograph of The Plague, by Albert Camus, in my bookshelf for some 40 years. Set in the spring of 1947 in a town on the coast of Algeria, a virus spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans. Despite quarantines and efforts at isolation, the plague at its most virulent kills over 500 people a day.
The main protagonist in the fictional account is Dr. Rieux who downplays his heroism to proclaim that “the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
There are so many wonderful stories of people’s decency and heroism during the coronavirus plague. A young medical intern performing her third chest compression of the day, a person going in to check on a neighbor whose spouse is out of town and can’t get hold of him, a family offering their vacation home as a refuge for out of state travelers, a company not charging rent to a business forced to shut its doors, a neighbor sharing food and other supplies. I find the stories of people choosing generosity over pecuniary interests most heartwarming because one of the lessons to be learned from this pandemic is what Camus chose to highlight in The Plague:
“Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.” Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible.”
A plague such as the coronavirus has us reformulate our priorities. What can we live without? What are our basic necessities, our greatest human needs? Beyond food, shelter and clothing what comprises a decent life?
Our caring and concern for ourselves and others. Our staying connected. Our hopefulness. Our prioritizing life over work and life over the liberty to do whatever we want. That is how decency turns into heroism.