We’re all obsessed with the science of COVID-19. And, of course, we need science at a time like this, but we also need poets and novelists to help us make sense of things. It’s not just me that thinks so; it has been widely reported that sales of Albert Camus’s The Plague have increased from a few hundred a month to many thousands.
Camus’s novel is the story of a plague striking a city in North Africa: people move from denial to panic; people die; some act heroically, some act badly (neither makes much difference) and eventually the plague recedes. A key moral of Camus’s text is that we never learn: ‘There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise’, and that we are never safe because, even as people celebrate its passing, the plague ‘waits patiently for the day…when it awakens its rats and sends them forth to die in a happy city’.
This idea is developed further by Miroslav Holub, a Czech poet who was also a distinguished immunologist, though the conclusion of his poem Parasite is pretty grim. It isn’t that we don’t learn – it’s worse than that – it’s that we learn the wrong things: ‘For years the eruption will die away / and little spores of imbecile agreement / will bore into granite and wait there / like wet dynamite.’
That matters right now because we do need to learn from this crisis. Both in terms of the disease itself, but also the social epidemiology: what sort of society we are and want to become. For local government, as I suggested in my column last month, that means thinking about the location of power, fighting for financial viability and evolving as institutions that can lead change.
Most of what is being written at the moment can be paraphrased as ‘why coronavirus means I was right all along’ – and we’re all a little guilty of that. But we need to make sure we have the humility to learn.
And we can’t forget about politics. I’ve also been re-reading another great plague novel, Garcia Marquez’s Love in a Time of Cholera. In fact, it’s not very much about cholera but it is about love, patience, yearning, memory and the power of the imagination to transfigure the ordinary into the magical. All of which feels useful right now. (It’s equally about self-deception and our ability to see things the way we wish them to be not the way they are.) But it also reminds us that disease can act as a convenient mask for politics and even for political violence.
‘Someone said that the cholera was ravaging the villages of the Great Swamp… “Well it must be a very special form of cholera,” he said, ‘because every single corpse has received the coup de grace through the back of the neck.’
In this country it isn’t only local government finances that are receiving the coup de grace, but elsewhere in the world we’ve already seen authoritarian regimes use coronavirus to tighten their grip on power. And as we think about how we move forward and what we learn, we must remember that political choice and contestation are, like love and memory, an intrinsic part of the human condition.
Love in the Time of Cholera emphasises the proximity of art and disease with a glancing reference to Adrien Proust ‘the most outstanding epidemiologist of his time and creator of the cordons sanitaires’. As well as being a founding figure of modern disease control, Proust was the father of the novelist Marcel.
Now, within our household cordons sanitaires, one day seems much like another and we all mourn the ghost calendar of things we should be doing and places we should be. What an irony, then, that it is the legacy of the elder Proust that leaves us all in search of lost time.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit