Seeking perspective for our misleadingly named ‘unprecedented times,’ I re-read Albert Camus’ The Plague. Themes in the storyline of complacency, escapism, resignation, fear, heroism, altruism, heightened awareness of nature and death are reflected in the novel’s mainly male characters. The joint decision-making of harassed doctors and perplexed political authorities parallels the unanswered existential questions that the COVID-19 pandemic is raising here in Britain as we view televised briefings from irritable unsmiling men (and occasionally a woman) speaking mostly through clichés. The main difference is that Camus’ doctors and administrators admit doubt.
Right at the start of the novel, young journalist Rambert asks Dr. Rieux, the physician hero who attends victims of the epidemic, about ‘the living conditions of the Arabs’ in Oran, Algeria where The Plague is set. Rieux’s rushed response is to say that the health conditions are not good, but he is more preoccupied with the journalist being able to ‘tell the truth’, not about the Arabs but about the pandemic in general. As the novel unfolds, ‘the Arabs’ become at most shadowy presences in their undescribed ‘quarter’, barely perceptible backdrops to the forensically described inner reflections and turmoil of the French characters. This is so even though the toll on Arabs, as a subordinated population, would have probably been more severe in any actual pandemic. A naïve reader, unaware of France’s 130 year colonisation of Algeria might think that ‘Arabs’ in Oran to be an insignificant ethnic minority of little overall import in the bigger picture.
A more aggressive interpretation of indifference regarding the suffering of Arabs is brought out in Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, a retelling of Camus’ The Stranger from the point of view of Harun, the brother of ‘the Arab’ who Camus’ central character murders on the beach midway through the novella. Enmeshed in the torpor, despair, humiliation and authoritarianism that continues into post-independence Algeria, Harun constantly dialogues with Camus, berating the famous writer for making his brother anonymous. A passing reference to a similar incident appears in The Plague when a tobacconist converses with a customer about ‘a young company employee who had killed an Arab on a beach’.
But,The Plague is not necessarily to be taken literally as a story about a pandemic in Algeria. It is also thought to be an allegory of Nazi-occupied France where Camus lived when he wrote it. The volunteer helper Tarrou’s monologue to Rieux near the end of the novel is a philosophical rejection of collaboration in anything that causes death and a rallying call to be on the side of victims. Earlier the Jesuit Father Paneloux had preached that ‘all sin was mortal and all indifference criminal’. As a great humanist, Camus was opposed to indifference, and was a relentless critic of all violence, including colonial violence. This is clearer in his journalism and letters, where he shows himself to be equally opposed to the bloodshed caused by the French and by the Algerian liberation fighters, as well as towards the attempted erasure of Arab, Imazighen and other indigenous Algerian cultures. But, during the pandemic in Oran, even these favoured European subjects were divided between the ‘poor families [that] found themselves in a very difficult situation, while the rich lacked for practically nothing’.
In exposing people to deadly viruses, epidemics of infectious diseases also expose the patterns of beliefs and prejudice about the qualities of particular populations that legitimate power and sovereignty, a sovereignty, it should be remembered that was accomplished by the European spread of infectious disease across the globe. The subjugation of occupied populations and the relative disregard of them in conceptualisations of the society itself are relevant to how a pandemic such as that of coronavirus is being treated today by our governments. While we can see in Camus writings as a whole that he was not indifferent and was struggling against violence, this cannot be said of contemporary state politicians, eager as they are to return to the economic growth and consumption that ultimately legitimate their authority.
Although counting cases and deaths depends on institutional competence and commitment and official statistics are likely to be a significant undercount, the numbers of published cases and deaths from coronavirus of Afro-descended, migrant and indigenous populations in Britain and the US are disproportionately high. Tracking roughly the first month of the pandemic, Britain’s Office of National Statistics found that almost every other ethnic group was at greater risk of a coronavirus -related death than the white population in England and Wales. In particular, it notes, ‘Black males and females are nearly twice as likely as similar White people to experience a COVID-19 death.’ Black males are 4.2 times likely to die from coronavirus than white counterparts. These patterns are not accidental. We know that minorities are much more likely to be exposed to the virus because they are more likely to live in overcrowded urban settings in London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester where the pandemic has been more prevalent and they are also heavily represented as frontline workers in care homes and public transport.
Ethnic minority doctors have died in greater numbers than white doctors and the first 11 doctors to die from coronavirus were from minority backgrounds, often drawn from formerly colonised territories on the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. Althoughminorities comprise only 14% of the UK population, they make up 44% of medical staff. As of 22 April, at 34% of COVID-19 deaths, ethnic minorities comprised double the proportion of deaths as their representation in the UK population. There are, however, differences between ethnic groups as classified, but after controlling for age and geography, ‘Bangladeshi hospital fatalities are twice those of the white British group, Pakistani deaths are 2.9 times as high and black African deaths 3.7 times as high’ according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. People from Indian and Black Caribbean backgrounds likewise have excess fatalities over whites. As the authors note all this is in spite of the fact that all non-white ethnic groups have younger age profiles than whites.
The British government’s commissioned study on ‘disparities’ in COVID-19 cases and deaths confirmed these differences. But, in doing so, it seems unlikely that the right wing Johnson government will have any appetite to go beyond the cold assurances that ‘disparities’ will be ‘discussed and considered,’ with ‘relevant guidance’ being issued, and ‘wherever possible [to] mitigate or reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the population groups that are shown in this review to be more affected by the infection and its adverse outcomes.’ The guarded, caveat-heavy, and ambiguous language speaks to a desire to be seen to be doing something while leaving the door wide open to doing nothing. Certainly there is nothing in these words that would address the racialised inequalities that proliferate in the afterlife of British colonialism, and Johnson’s well known stock of bigotry and casual racism does not suggest that the infections of ethnic minorities in Britain will be taken seriously by his government.
In the US, early studies have shown that the rate of death from coronavirus for African Americans is also about double their proportion of the population. Latinos are also disproportionately stricken with coronavirus. In California, they comprise 39 percent of the population, but almost half of cases. The problem is that, like in Britain, official national statistical rates are not systematically kept according to ethnicity. Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Senator Elizabeth Warren are calling on the federal government to change how they are collecting data so as to be able to compare rates of different ethnic groups. States and municipalities, however, have collected statistics by race and all show that African-Americans represent over half of all coronavirus deaths, despite being a minority. In Louisiana and Mississippi, states where African Americans comprise 33% and 38% of the populations, they account for 70% and 61% of the deaths respectively. Similar patterns are evident everywhere such data has been collected. Meanwhile, neither President Trump not anyone in his administration have uttered a word about this.
Despite being vigilant and setting up quarantine-like conditions on reservations, Native Americans have been hit hard by the pandemic. In Arizona, Native Americans make up 20% of deaths where race and ethnicity are known. Overall, they only comprise about 4.5% of the population in the state. By the mid May 2020, the Diné (Navajo) people had a per capita rate of deaths that if it were a state would be the highest in the country, ahead of New York and New Jersey . Doctors without Borders have been dispatched to the Reservation which in many areas does not have the physical infrastructure to support the sick. One in three Diné households, for example, does not have running water. Navajo Nation, the political body of the Diné people, had to wait six weeks for aid under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, and this was only forthcoming after they and 10 other tribal groups filed a lawsuit. The approach to the virus by the Republican administration of Arizona has been in step with the Trump insistence on suppressing information, prioritising ‘back to work’ over public health, and even pausing the efforts of a team of university scientists to model the likely unfolding of the pandemic in the state.
Possibly because they are aware of the genocidal impacts of European-imported infectious diseases in the past, many native communities have taken stringent measures to insulate themselves from the ravages of COVID-19. In South Dakota, some Sioux communities have set up roadblocks checking people entering and leaving, but have been ordered to remove them by the enthusiastic ‘back to work’ hydroxychloroquine promoting Governor Kristi Noem. The Innu communities I have worked with in northern Labrador, Canada have also taken the pandemic very seriously establishing rules for entry and exits into their communities, with roadblocks outside the village of Sheshatshiu. While this is contemporary, the huge death toll on the Labrador coast from Spanish flu a century ago is still common knowledge. Their greater susceptibility to imported infectious diseases has made them targets for racial discrimination in the settler community of Goose Bay.
Native Americans, of course, have every reason to be ultra-cautious in light of their histories with imported infectious diseases, and this includes deliberate actions to wipe them out completely. Most notoriously, in what was perhaps the first instance of biological warfare, Sir General Jeffrey Amherst ordered his subordinate at Fort Pitt to distribute smallpox infected blankets to Indians after Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763 in the Great Lakes Region. One historian calls this, ‘the deadliest strain of colonial hatred which had been gestating for over a century and a half.’ Having had a glorious military career, Amherst was the commander in chief of British forces in North America.
While we have not seen genocidal aggression in the recent or current pandemics, we do find vigorously surviving forces of colonialism in the inability of governments to appreciate the far greater suffering of minority and indigenous peoples and to take measures that would both understand the structural reasons why they are more vulnerable and protect them specifically. The nearest we have come to open aggression on indigenous populations comes from Brazil’s far right President Jair Bolsonaro’s contempt for public health, the flip side of the coin to his encouragement of rapid economic development of indigenous territories that has put native communities at extreme risk. Some indigenous communities in Amazonia are uncontacted and have little or no immunity to imported diseases.
In North America, the expectation of mass indigenous fatalities, however, has become, like the inevitability of excess deaths among other minorities and the poor, a given for governments. In the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ epidemic, the Canadian government sent body bags to an Aboriginal reserve in Manitoba. This caused outrage among indigenous communities because it was thought to be a bland admission by the state that fatalities would be much higher among aboriginal peoples, as in fact, they were in early studies of the epidemic. In the US the same ‘mistake’ was made in March 2020 when a shipment of body bags was sent to the Seattle Health Center, when in fact, the request was made for medical supplies. This was “a metaphor for what’s happening” according to Abigail Echo-Hawk, the chief research officer for the Center. Wherever there are colonial-derived social hierarchies there is always the possibility that the indifference and hostility to ethnic patterns of suffering will surface in metaphors like this.
Just as many of Camus’ contemporary readers would not necessarily be aware of the colonial context that forms the setting of The Plague, those unaware of his other writings might be tempted to take it literally without balancing it with his commitment to rebelling against the everyday institutional and ideological violence that denies people dignity. In parallel, many of today’s British and American viewers of pandemic briefings would have little inkling that Afro-descended, migrant and indigenous people as groups are excessively afflicted, and even if they were sensitized to this the official statements would not incline them to do anything about it. They would not become Camus’ rebel unless stirred by a wider social movement. As Susan Sontag remarks of the occasional surfacing of photographs of atrocities in distant places in Regarding the Pain of Others, ‘we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering,’ and even a declaration of sympathy can simply set aside ‘how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering.’ The possibility that patterns of suffering from COVID-19 might reveal the racial privilege incarnated in Western state institutions is part of the present moment. It is already becoming unveiled by the emerging social movements against the official racial violence that the pandemic is in some way a part.
About the author: Colin Samson was educated as a medical sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1994, he has worked with the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula. His new book The Colonialism of Human Rights: Ongoing Hypocrisies of Western Liberalism is published by Polity in September 2020. He is based at the University of Essex.