The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo)

Camus, New York and unending wars of pandemics

The pictures of the empty streets in New York City taken during the coronavirus crisis gave a strange feeling to everybody. For those who saw or experienced the traffic jams on the main avenues of the city and the crowdedness of Times Square, the photos were unfamiliar. An odd and bizarre sense of emptiness, a peculiar atmosphere of desolation and at the same time a perplexing and puzzling beauty made millions view these pictures again and again.

The pictures of the empty streets in New York City taken during the coronavirus crisis gave a strange feeling to everybody. For those who saw or experienced the traffic jams on the main avenues of the city and the crowdedness of Times Square, the photos were unfamiliar. An odd and bizarre sense of emptiness, a peculiar atmosphere of desolation and at the same time a perplexing and puzzling beauty made millions view these pictures again and again.

In fact, this unusual scene of abandoned New York streets has been in several different movies. It was always as a background for an eerie, ghostly, mysterious or dreamy situation. In the movie “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997), one of the most suspenseful scenes was Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) walking on the deserted East 57th street, to confront John Milton (Al Pacino). In another movie “Vanilla Sky” (2001), this time David Aames (Tom Cruise) was driving his car from uptown Central Park West to Times Square, seeing the streets and Times Square totally empty. It was a dream, a nightmare to be more precise. In both movies the protagonists were shocked and confused to see the emptiness of the streets in New York. It was unusual not only for these two protagonists who had their offices in the busiest parts of Manhattan. For the millions of viewers of these movies as well, it was a sign of abnormality, irregularity and oddity. New York City has always been identified with its chaos, complexity, crowds and orderly disorder.

In the last few weeks, we have seen a sufficient number of these pictures and photos which satisfied our awe and made many around the world feel somehow blue, gloomy and melancholic. The scenes that we used to see in fiction scenarios have become real. It has been happening in the midst of a pandemic and outbreak of the coronavirus. This added another layer of unusualness to the situation. For Hollywood producers, New York has always been a primary target for the outside forces who would harm humanity. In “Independence Day” (1996) aliens in a giant spaceship attacked the city. In “Deep Impact” (1998) it was a meteor that generated major tidal waves that destroyed the city. In “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) New York had become a victim of global warming. Even the monsters, including “King Kong” (2005) and “Godzilla” (1998) targeted the city. This time the city was attacked by invisible viruses and for real.

New epicenter

The epicenter of the coronavirus is not Wuhan or Milan anymore, for the last two weeks New York City is considered the real hot spot of the deadly outbreak. The urgency of the situation is obvious from, now regular, press conferences of the governor of New York state and the mayor of New York City. Gov. Mark Cuomo’s press conferences have been followed all around the world by people who want to understand the true extent of this pandemic. As of today more than 180,000 people in New York are infected with the deadly virus and 9,000 people lost their lives, almost three times the casualties of the 9/11 attack.

Nineteen years after the horrible terrorist attacks aimed at the World Trade Center, we have seen New York as the center of the worst pandemic of the last several decades. The scenes from the overcrowded hospitals and mortuaries are circulating all around the world. The burial of the unclaimed bodies of pandemic victims to Hart Island in New York gave chills to millions of people. The Big Apple, the finance capital of the world, that hosts the United Nations, the biggest corporations, the most expensive real estate and the most magnificent museums in its territory during this crisis showed the frailty of human lives and limitations of technology and medicine to fight against some small viruses.

The outbreak of the virus in the city now reminds many people of the beginning of the crisis in the city of Oran from Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” which has become one of the best sellers again 73 years after its publication during the days of the coronavirus. In the novel, first the dead rats in the streets and then an increasing number of people with fevers in the hospitals signaled the emergence of something unusual. There was always a fear of a plague but nobody, including the leading character of the novel Dr. Rieux was willing to admit the true nature of the threat the city was facing.

The novel raised the issue of how people failed to really prepare for a threat such as a plague. Each and every time it is considered as a surprise, something like an earthquake. In a memorable quote of the novel, it was stated that “‘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.” In New York, the situation was not that different. This time the warnings and red flags were not coming from the history books or the stories of the elder residences of the town. According to the experts, the spread of the coronavirus first throughout Asia, then throughout Europe raised the risk of a potential outbreak in the U.S. in the coming weeks. The most likely target was, of course, the most significant and cosmopolitan city of the U.S. But again everybody, including New Yorkers, took it as a surprise when in March the virus shocked people with the speed of its spread.

Some of the administrators of New York were not different from the high level bureaucrats of Oran. They knew what could go wrong during the epidemic, but it was impractical to alarm everybody. In Oran there was a reluctance to call it a plague, and administrators took draconian measures. In New York, it was already known that it would be a host of the coronavirus outbreak, but the problem was how to take action against it. The mayor of New York was among the people who did not want to seem alarmed. Mayor Don DeBlasio asked New Yorkers to “go about their lives” and to “go about their businesses” in the midst of the outbreak in the world. He said that one cannot get this virus in a subway or stadium or in a conference. He claimed that if someone is under 50 and did not have an underlying medical condition it will not be a major threat. He seemed to be very much against the school closures in the city. It turned out that the motivation of the administrators have always been more or less the same, a) fear of a false alarm b) a desire to avoid disruption to everyday life of citizens and c) to provide the continuation of economic and social activity in the city. In Oran people believed that these forms of epidemics were just like bad dreams that will pass away; in New York the expectation of many was that it can be managed and it would go away like a regular cold for many people. President Donald Trump, for instance, a New Yorker himself, believed that it would miraculously go away.

But it was not only the administrators, citizens also made similar mistakes during the beginning of the outbreak in both Oran and New York. The narrator in the novel explains how the residents of Oran failed to take precautions despite warnings. Thus the blame fell on them as well. According to him, “they forgot to be modest… and thought that everything was still possible for them, which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free…” Following the stay at home order issued there were pictures of New York parks and streets on social media with a lot of people continuing with their routine. Cuomo had to warn people multiple times about the danger that this behavior poses for New Yorkers.

In a press conference he warned young people by saying that “‘So you’re not Superman and you’re not Superwoman; you can get this virus. And you can transfer the virus and you can wind up hurting someone who you love or hurting someone wholly inadvertently. This is a public health issue and you cannot endanger other people’s health.” Later his tone got tougher when he saw the continuing presence of the people on the streets. This time he called the crowds “wholly inappropriate” and stated that “it’s insensitive, it’s arrogant, it’s self-destructive, it’s disrespectful to other people, and it has to stop, and it has to stop now” and added that it is not a joke and he is not kidding. “He reminded New Yorkers that “this is not life as usual.” It took this much warning and thousands in the hospitals overcrowding the wards and ICU units for New Yorkers to understand the extent of this threat.

It is sad. It is unprecedented for many people in this generation to see a pandemic causing this much damage to a city and its residents. It is sometimes inconceivable to understand how an epidemic cannot be contained even by the most advanced nations. It is sometimes hard to believe the amount of harm that a virus can give to societies and economies around the world. For a moment or for years we have believed that pandemics were something that belong to history textbooks. We woke up with the coronavirus. The residents of Oran and New York and indeed the people in the world need to understand the fact that the epidemics will be around for a long time. There will be fighting, there will be casualties. Epidemics and pandemics have been the part of lives of many generations and it seems that it will continue to be that way. The number of casualties, the longevity of the battle and the nature of fighting will depend on the level of preparedness of humankind for these kind of diseases. As the narrator of the novel stated about the end of the plague in Oran, there will not be a definitive victory. It will just be the end of another battle. The virus, just like the pandemic in “The Plague” will stay dormant, until it rises again.

[Daily Sabah, 13 April 2020]

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