Pointing the Finger

Pointing the Finger
(AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Ever since​ the arrival of Covid-19 – in Western Europe, roughly at the end of January – sales of Albert Camus’s The Plague, first published in 1947, have increased exponentially, an upsurge strangely in line with the graphs that daily chart the toll of the sick and the dead. By the end of March, monthly sales of the UK Penguin Classics edition had grown from the low hundreds to the mid-thousands and were rising (they are now up 1000 per cent). When trying to track the spread of a virus, tallies like these are always approximate and imperfect, but knowing this appears to make no difference to their quasi-sacred status. It is as if intoning numbers according to the same recognisable formula, however scary, allows us somehow to feel on top of a situation which everyone knows – and not just because of government incompetence – is out of our control. One of the things The Plague conveys is that, at the very moment we appear to be taking the grimmest reality on board, we might also be deluding ourselves. Counting is at once a scientific endeavour and a form of magical thinking. It can be a way of bracing ourselves for and confronting an onslaught, and at the same time a doomed attempt at omnipotence, a system for classifying the horror and bundling it away. What exactly are we being told each time the latest figures are announced, rising consistently, dropping slightly, increasing again? Other than that we cannot get a grip on what is happening. We take all the measures there are to be taken, adequate and inadequate according to where and who we are. And we wait.

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