By Umang Kumar
“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away…” – Albert Camus’s The Plague
Some of us may wonder at the sense of distance we have experienced from the theaters of life-and-death struggle that characterize Covid-19 around the world. Despite constant news of deaths, if one is not directly affected or knows someone intimately who is, or works in a medical facility, then there is an eerie sense of un-connectedness, detachment, and separation from it all.
It is like the war in another country one hears about, in Syria or someplace distant; only, this war is everywhere and we are in its midst. Yet, it is a war whose sirens we cannot hear, whose bombs we do not feel crashing near us, whose gory images of wounds, shrapnel, and dismembered bodies we do not see.
What we see, instead, are occasional news images of people with breathing tubes out their noses being taken to hospitals – or body bags taken away.
The skies have not darkened and the wolves are not baying. The air is not rheumy and the nostrils are not burning from acrid smoke. It seems to be the most arid and silent incident of mass-death ever. It seems another Silent Spring is upon us and it is not birds who are dying off.
A tranquillity so casual and thoughtless seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague: Athens, a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony; the convicts at Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits; the building of the Great Wall in Provence to fend off the furious plague-wind; the damp, putrefying pallets stuck to the mud floor at the Constantinople lazar-house, where the patients were hauled up from their beds with hooks; the carnival of masked doctors at the Black Death; men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London’s ghoul-haunted darkness – nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain. (Albert Camus, The Plague)
As this passage from Camus’ book, The Plague, endeavors to throw into relief, the plague recounted in the novel unfolded with a surface-level sense of normalcy, a “tranquility so casual and thoughtless” that it obscured all horrors of death and disease occurring in homes and hospitals. Or the depictions of the disease in the past, with the “cartloads of dead bodies” and the “nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain.”
Most global news platforms like the BBC, Al-Jazeera or The New York Times, that carry news from all corners of the world to us in our homes, can only convey some of the horrors on their two-dimensional canvases. That too, is probably heavily attenuated for fear of causing alarm. There is documentation of the tragedy, enumeration and geographies of deaths, numbers and more numbers till senses are deadened, but there is little palpable suffering shuddering on the pages.
It is as if these media portals are merely aggregators of news, piling up one news item over another, registering each day’s tragedy as it vulgarly overhauls the one the day before. But who died, and how, and where, how they passed on to the next world, whom they left behind, who wept silently and who sobbed uncontrollably – we do not know…
There are no dirges, no cremation fires rising to the sky, there is no wailing, no stream of mourners, no hearses.
We do hear that in Ecuador, the bodies of the dead have been piling up on the streets as “chilling pictures reveal bodies left in the streets, and coffins dumped outside waiting to be collected.”
No wonder the news about Covid-19 interleaves with that of the sports-hero’s Instagram updates; the yoga routine of a celebrity starlet; the latest antics of a celebrity-couples’ son; ricotta-cheese recipes to try at home; a list of ten novels to beat cabin fever.
Death, despair, desperation are not public spectacles and maybe for the best.
It is as if some Evil Being demands nightly offerings and citizens, young and old, are being selected at random to be offered up at its altar. They are carted away secretly at night to be sacrificed before this Deity; by morning there is no trace remaining of them, and the new toll from the night’s sacrifice is tom-tommed in the city for everyone to hear.
The rest of us still remaining do not know who among us will be selected next. None of us believes it will be us.
Umang Kumar is a writer based in the National Capital Region of Delhi.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.