Nearly a fortnight ago, when I heard that the Government planned to require all UK citizens over the age of 70 to self-isolate at home for up to four months, I was outraged. What, all of us? Incarcerated against our will? There will be a revolt. Riots in the streets. Why us? Some of us are as fit as fiddles, if not fitter, though maybe not myself.
Well, that has been overtaken by events and here we all are. Not just the elderly and vulnerable, not yet stopped by police or military from going out without authorisation, as we've seen on news broadcasts from elsewhere in Europe on pain of severe fines, but when the PM bites the unpopularity bullet, it may happen. However, with all resorts of entertainment closed, not to mention the cold, there isn't much to tempt one forth. Books to read, stories to write, a husband to annoy and be annoyed by. We'll be fine.
It's a sinister business this virus. Invisible, silent, mainly mild, but potentially lethal. My brother, who lives in Hong Kong, where wearing masks is obligatory if you go out, was comparing it to SARS. With SARS, he said, if you had it, you knew. With COVID-19, you may have it and not know, and while not knowing, you may infect others.
I was due to meet a friend last Friday. We hadn't seen each other since before Christmas. In the circumstances, I thought we should cancel. Just as I was typing the email, she phoned. Her husband had been diagnosed with COVID-19 the previous week. Fortunately mild. She was coughing a bit. She probably had it now too. They had been in north Italy in January. But he might have contracted it more recently in Norway where he'd been working. The world is porous. COVID-19 infiltrates everywhere.
And where does it come from? How does it generate? Even the experts seem vague and rumours abound. Viruses lurk in non-human species. Some then mutate and transfer to humans who have no immunity to them. Further mutations lead to inter-human infection. Apparently. In recent years we've had bird flu, swine flu, ebola, CJD. The Black Death of the 14th century was attributed to rats coming ashore from merchant ships from the Middle East. The massive flu epidemic of 1918-19 we call Spanish flu did not originate in Spain. Now COVID-19 is attributed variously to bats, snakes, even a pangolin, from a food market in Wuhan. In a secular age we no longer attribute it to the wrath of God. For many of us, it's just a terrible inconvenience. For others, it's a major personal and economic disaster.
We are also acquiring phrases that will date us: self-isolation, social distancing, herd immunity, panic-buying.
La Peste by Albert Camus
I read this book during 1968-69, just out of university when, although an English rather than a languages graduate, I got a last-minute teaching assistantship at a lycée in Marseilles. Teaching was severely disrupted following les evenements de mai of 1968, so I had a great deal of free time. I built up a small library of Livres de Poche, most of which I read.
was particularly memorable. It's usually understood as a coded reference to the German occupation of France during WW2. Resonances are there, not least the abandoned beach railway track requisitioned to carry the surplus dead to a purpose-built crematorium. It resonated with the recent news image of the convoy of military trucks carrying coffins from Bergamo in north Italy where there was no more burial space.
The story begins with a plague of dying rats emerging in the Algerian city of Oran. When the rats disappear, the human population gets sick. Fatalities ensue. Camus focuses on a small group of men coping with the crisis. Their womenfolk are peripheral, but loved and missed. The narrator, Dr Rieux, sends his sick wife to a sanatorium in the mountains before the plague takes hold. She will die there. The journalist, Rambert, tries desperately to leave the lockdowned city to rejoin his lover in France before deciding to stay and help Rieux, who works day and night to save as many lives as he can.
In a vain search for literary perfection, Grand, a town hall clerk, endlessly reworks the first sentence of a never-to-be-completed novel in tribute to the wife who left him. Visitor Tarrou, fascinated by Oran's oddities, like the old man who spits at cats from his balcony, keeps a chronicle of the plague. Cottard, preserved from suicide, turns black marketeer and when the plague abates goes mad. In the end, there is grief as well as joy. No heroism, just resilience and decency. The conclusion contains a poignant warning:
Indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was unaware... that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.
Meanwhile, stay well.