Level Two


La Peste

After two weeks in Level Two we reach a new milestone – at midday, gatherings of up to 100 can be held. That means that Muslims can return to the mosque for Friday prayers today and other worship will take place over the weekend. Our Quaker Meeting is preparing to return to the Meeting House. I went in yesterday to put a clipboard and pens at the door for contact tracing and met the cleaner who is doing an extra thorough clean.

Level Two has felt quite normal to me. I've been back in the pool, met friends in cafes and for walks on the beach and tomorrow I fly to Wellington to spend the long weekend with the family. I don't yet know when I can get to the other family in Melbourne but word on that is promising. Suddenly it seems it's all going to be ok.

Feeling safer, I turned to pandemic reading: Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year and Albert Camus' The Plague (published in French in 1947 titled La Peste.) Both are intriguing in their parallels with the present situation. Defoe talks about shutting sick people up in their houses in London and how people flocked to quack cures and strange religious practices in their fear. Contagion was well understood and social distancing, quarantine and, if possible, retiring to the country were common strategies but the vector of the flea was not known till the 19th century and Defoe writes scornfully that some believe there are tiny insects in the air which bring disease – an early form of germ theory but one which didn't apply in the case of bubonic plague. Fleas were probably such a common part of life they weren't even considered a risk.  It's worth noting that there were devastating outbreaks of plague in Europe from the 1300s till the 1665 Plague of London Defoe is writing about, but there have been 20th century outbreaks too. When I was back-packing in India in the 70s I didn't go to Varanasi because I was told there was an outbreak there. It can be cured by antibiotics but is still deadly to some.

Camus, the humanist, draws a moral lesson about kindness and commitment in the face of terror. It's said that he used the quarantine of an Algerian city as a metaphor for the occupation of Paris by the Nazis, during which he was part of the resistance. I first read La Peste in French at University and still remember the image of the flail beating above the city and the conversation between two main characters, working ceaselessly and mostly fruitlessly among the sick and dying. Tarrou says he doesn't believe in God but, having realised his revolutionary past has caused the deaths of many, is seeking sainthood. Rieux replies that he just wants to be human and Tarrou tells him, 'But I'm less ambitious.' The message is to respond to the circumstances you find yourself in by doing what is right, according to your own integrity, and doing the least harm possible. It reminds me of Viktor Frankl's philosophy, also honed during the war, in his case in a concentration camp.

I meet a friend in the street as she is putting tools into the boot of her car at the end of a gardening job. We talk about the return to 'normal' which includes busyness and traffic as well as work and pleasure and comment on how orderly and clear our pandemic response is. She has family in the UK and is worried about how out of control they seem over there. But NZ has responded well – who knew we were so community-minded and compliant? You wouldn't guess it from the way we drive, especially lately! But somehow the calm, intelligent, carefully-worded presentations of our PM and Director General of Health have kept us informed and engaged in a process with the greater good in mind. Having clarity about what was expected at each level took the pressure off individuals, reducing our anxiety about whether we were doing the right thing to keep ourselves and our families well. Some will say it was over the top or unnecessary but the results in countries that have given mixed messages and don't provide a safety net for those put out of work by the regulations, are sad to see.

Camus ends his novel by warning that the plague bacilli, and he could also be meaning war and terrorism, don't die entirely but hide away in cupboards and cellars, to return to bring human beings back to awareness. A virus can close down the world, and so can human cruelty or lack of respect for nature. We really are all in this together.