Paul Andersen: Anybody got an extra sanitary mask?
There’s been a run on sanitary masks as coronavirus ups the ante. Try finding one today in our valley.
Contagions are not only agents of death, they are profound agents of social change. In his novel, “The Plague,” Albert Camus describes a European city in the grip of a deadly, fast-spreading contagion.
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
Surprised to see the coronavirus leap across continents and oceans — no walls or borders to contain it. Surprised to see tremors of panic shaking governments and destabilizing markets.
When faced with mortality, people react differently. For some, the shadow of death is liberating, allowing them to take risks and assume traits they had never before considered.
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well,” Camus says. “It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”
Others auger into paranoia and isolation, waiting in terror for symptoms: “You must picture the consternation of our little town,” Camus wrote, “hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins.”
Quarantines are only so effective in blocking the invisible, and quarantines lock up communities in isolation. The external world becomes virtual, and outside events seem remote and unreal.
“We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind,” writes Camus, “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.
“The Plague” was published in 1947, when most humans moved around less frequently and in shorter distances. Now, rapid mobility of vast populations in communal airline cabins and cruise ships introduces much higher risk.
While the whipsaw stock market is of concern to many who lost in one week what they had gained since 2008, even those financial losses pale next to fears of survival.
Meanwhile, Clorox stock has risen dramatically because disinfectants will see increased demand. The same is happening with sanitizers, rubber gloves, perhaps whole body suits. Will there be a run on medical and food supplies? Is it humane to hoard and profit because of a dire threat to all humanity?
Certain nationalities have been harder hit than others. First the Chinese, then the Japanese, then the Italians. How rapidly the virus has spanned the world. In Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Rhode Island and many other states, anyone could be a potential carrier.
The virus is international and egalitarian, a connective malignity that makes us one Earth and one species in the thrall of a threat with unifying potential. The virus is a Hobbesian Leviathan, a force of nature that will hopefully compel men to act together, for the interests of the whole, not just for themselves.
Meanwhile, bucket list boomers are reconsidering exotic destinations. Will you make that trip to the tropics for a respite from winter? Will tourists continue flying to Aspen for skiing, hiking, music, Food & Wine, Ideas, JAS?
Stand at the Aspen Mountain gondola and listen to the diversity of languages. Suddenly, each one has latent danger as the virus circulates unimpeded, carried by innocents wearing face masks.
If the spread is not contained, prepare for the virtual, the disconnected, the isolated life of a contagion-stricken world where face-to-face encounters may no longer be safe.
“They fancied themselves free,” Camus wrote, “and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
And so we are bound — to nature’s deadly whims, and to each other. Now, if I can just find a sanitary mask that matches my ski goggles …
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.