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The Plague of privilege: What Camus taught me about sickness

How one man tricked his mind into handling Covid

SAMAA | - Posted: Feb 23, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago
SAMAA |
Posted: Feb 23, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago
The Plague of privilege: What Camus taught me about sickness

The bubonic plague or Black Death swept through Europe and the Islamic world repeatedly over centuries. Here a doctor's beak-like mask from the 17th Century used for the cover of La Peste. Image: SAMAA Digital

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My work as a bureaucrat necessitates interacting with as many as 200 random people at any given time and so there is virtually no escaping the risk of COVID-19. As a result, whenever I was suffering from the flu, a common affliction in Karachi, I ended up believing that I had inevitably contracted the virus. In order to resist paranoia, somehow, then I had to train myself into believing that I had developed antibodies. This belief helped me work in relative peace. I am not suggesting that I underplayed the seriousness of coronavirus. I took all precautions while interacting with people and at work, but the idea that I had developed a fighting mechanism helped divert my mind from the paralysis of threat. Must watch: Which vaccine will Pakistanis above 65 receive?A few days ago, however, I realized that I had lost my sense of smell. After desperately sniffing the perfume bottles on my dresser, I began to brace for the possibility that I had contracted Covid. A series of frantic phone calls ensued to my doctor friends and those who had dealt with coronavirus. I had been under the impression that as no drugs actually worked against it, all I had to do was keep a check on my fever and keep it under control. Unfortunately, I was entirely wrong; I was prescribed a handful of medicines, including an antibiotic to keep the body’s defenses ready to fight against any bacterial infection, along with anti-allergens and a blood thinner. Some multi-vitamins would boost my immunity. Almost everyone I consulted told me to get an oximeter to monitor the oxygen saturation levels in my body. Other prescriptions included steam inhalation, fresh citrus juice, yakhni from desi chicken and lots of dry fruit. I had myself tested at home, an expensive undertaking.  As expected, my result came positive. After the fourth day, I was advised to get my blood tested to gauge how my body was reacting to the virus. I was told to get a chest x-ray to give my doctors a clearer view of the condition my lungs were in. Thanks to a friend, my visit to the hospital was brief. I was not asked to wait in line, which was a relief. A few days on the meds and after experiencing some problems, I started to feel better, and my sense of smell returned. I would place myself somewhere in the lower bracket of the middle-income group. I have a stable job and a good work environment. Throughout the entire ordeal of having Covid, my office supported me in every way. I was given all the time I needed to recover and was constantly asked if I needed anything. I was assured of all institutional support. Staying at home and being ill comes with its own price and by no means was I able to make any monetary savings. In fact, I had to spend more on my recovery than I usually do on healthcare. But I am blessed to have survived it without experiencing any complications. Artwork: Yawar Yaseen/ SAMAA Digital You might think that all of this is the babbling of a privileged person—and you would be right. This is exactly what I intend to highlight. When the pandemic gripped the world, it was said that at least it was not a class-based disease, and anyone can fall victim. But can we compare my affliction to that of a less privileged person who does not have a stable job or savings, has to go out to find work every day, has no access to medical advice and has to wait in long queues at a hospital? Just as Orwell put it, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” It is never truer that we live in a world of inequalities and privileges. Coincidentally, during the time I was out and down with Covid, I had the chance to re-read Albert Camus’s The Plague. The novel is about the people of the city of Oran who are convinced that as individuals, their suffering is unique and greater than of those around them. But with time, they learn that the plague is a common concern and afflicts all. The citizens of Oran eventually discover that the best response is to collectively stand against rampaging death. They fail, however, as the plague was incurable! Nevertheless, they learn to lead a more meaningful life. Most importantly, they were able to break the shackles that kept them alienated from one another. “Who taught you all this, doctor?The reply came promptly:Suffering.” These simple, yet famous lines from The Plague allude to our attempts to relate to the misery of our brethren. We need to understand that most of us do not have sustainable livelihoods. Most of us are exposed to unhygienic conditions and are vulnerable to this plague of modern times. COVID-19 is most likely to prevail, and we have to learn to live with it. Not just this virus, but we have to learn to live against all the diseases that plague our society. We are a poor country with every type of problem imaginable that can afflict the human condition. Lately, I have been thinking that being privileged is one the greatest of afflictions. It creates a false aura of authority and a sense of security. Standing in the hospital, I was thinking of myself and my own suffering. However, it was a place where there were probably far serious patients waiting their turn. But, at that moment in time, I was oblivious of their suffering. My concern was for my own well-being and self-preservation. It was later that I reflected on being privileged to have friends who helped me. I had the resources to buy expensive medicines. I was able to access medical advice. I am privileged to have a workplace where I am valued for my work. I do not mean to eschew these privileges, but I do think that our society would fare better if they were available across the board. Just as how towards the end of his work, Camus concluded on a merrier note that, “What we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” I never intended for this to be a prescription on morality, as we already receive overdoses of it in our society. All I mean is to urge readers to take the time to read Camus as I believe that though suffering is a great teacher, it should be avoided.
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My work as a bureaucrat necessitates interacting with as many as 200 random people at any given time and so there is virtually no escaping the risk of COVID-19. As a result, whenever I was suffering from the flu, a common affliction in Karachi, I ended up believing that I had inevitably contracted the virus. In order to resist paranoia, somehow, then I had to train myself into believing that I had developed antibodies. This belief helped me work in relative peace.

I am not suggesting that I underplayed the seriousness of coronavirus. I took all precautions while interacting with people and at work, but the idea that I had developed a fighting mechanism helped divert my mind from the paralysis of threat.

Must watch: Which vaccine will Pakistanis above 65 receive?

A few days ago, however, I realized that I had lost my sense of smell. After desperately sniffing the perfume bottles on my dresser, I began to brace for the possibility that I had contracted Covid.

A series of frantic phone calls ensued to my doctor friends and those who had dealt with coronavirus. I had been under the impression that as no drugs actually worked against it, all I had to do was keep a check on my fever and keep it under control.

Covid vaccine

Unfortunately, I was entirely wrong; I was prescribed a handful of medicines, including an antibiotic to keep the body’s defenses ready to fight against any bacterial infection, along with anti-allergens and a blood thinner. Some multi-vitamins would boost my immunity. Almost everyone I consulted told me to get an oximeter to monitor the oxygen saturation levels in my body. Other prescriptions included steam inhalation, fresh citrus juice, yakhni from desi chicken and lots of dry fruit.

I had myself tested at home, an expensive undertaking.  As expected, my result came positive. After the fourth day, I was advised to get my blood tested to gauge how my body was reacting to the virus. I was told to get a chest x-ray to give my doctors a clearer view of the condition my lungs were in. Thanks to a friend, my visit to the hospital was brief. I was not asked to wait in line, which was a relief. A few days on the meds and after experiencing some problems, I started to feel better, and my sense of smell returned.

I would place myself somewhere in the lower bracket of the middle-income group. I have a stable job and a good work environment. Throughout the entire ordeal of having Covid, my office supported me in every way. I was given all the time I needed to recover and was constantly asked if I needed anything. I was assured of all institutional support.

Staying at home and being ill comes with its own price and by no means was I able to make any monetary savings. In fact, I had to spend more on my recovery than I usually do on healthcare. But I am blessed to have survived it without experiencing any complications.

How-to-get-the-COVID-19-vaccine-in-Pakistan
Artwork: Yawar Yaseen/ SAMAA Digital

You might think that all of this is the babbling of a privileged person—and you would be right. This is exactly what I intend to highlight. When the pandemic gripped the world, it was said that at least it was not a class-based disease, and anyone can fall victim. But can we compare my affliction to that of a less privileged person who does not have a stable job or savings, has to go out to find work every day, has no access to medical advice and has to wait in long queues at a hospital? Just as Orwell put it, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” It is never truer that we live in a world of inequalities and privileges.

Coincidentally, during the time I was out and down with Covid, I had the chance to re-read Albert Camus’s The Plague. The novel is about the people of the city of Oran who are convinced that as individuals, their suffering is unique and greater than of those around them. But with time, they learn that the plague is a common concern and afflicts all. The citizens of Oran eventually discover that the best response is to collectively stand against rampaging death. They fail, however, as the plague was incurable! Nevertheless, they learn to lead a more meaningful life. Most importantly, they were able to break the shackles that kept them alienated from one another.

“Who taught you all this, doctor?
The reply came promptly:
Suffering.”

These simple, yet famous lines from The Plague allude to our attempts to relate to the misery of our brethren. We need to understand that most of us do not have sustainable livelihoods. Most of us are exposed to unhygienic conditions and are vulnerable to this plague of modern times. COVID-19 is most likely to prevail, and we have to learn to live with it. Not just this virus, but we have to learn to live against all the diseases that plague our society. We are a poor country with every type of problem imaginable that can afflict the human condition.

Lately, I have been thinking that being privileged is one the greatest of afflictions. It creates a false aura of authority and a sense of security. Standing in the hospital, I was thinking of myself and my own suffering. However, it was a place where there were probably far serious patients waiting their turn. But, at that moment in time, I was oblivious of their suffering. My concern was for my own well-being and self-preservation.

It was later that I reflected on being privileged to have friends who helped me. I had the resources to buy expensive medicines. I was able to access medical advice. I am privileged to have a workplace where I am valued for my work. I do not mean to eschew these privileges, but I do think that our society would fare better if they were available across the board. Just as how towards the end of his work, Camus concluded on a merrier note that, “What we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

I never intended for this to be a prescription on morality, as we already receive overdoses of it in our society. All I mean is to urge readers to take the time to read Camus as I believe that though suffering is a great teacher, it should be avoided.

 
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5 Comments

  1. Miss  February 23, 2021 3:30 pm/ Reply

    A good piece. Well done.

  2. Areeba J.  February 23, 2021 5:37 pm/ Reply

    I think this is your best piece of writing so far, maybe because this can resonate with so many others who have been afflicted by this.

    Working with Covid patients for months has taught me one thing, nobody is safe. If you have food on your table, all your family members are healthy and you have not lost loved ones to this disease, you are privileged. Some of us, more than others.

    I am glad you are doing okay, looking forward to read the book.

  3. Adil  February 24, 2021 6:51 am/ Reply

    Very well-written.

  4. Fahad  February 24, 2021 11:19 pm/ Reply

    Looking forward to Read the Book.

  5. Sajid Khaskheli  March 1, 2021 9:38 am/ Reply

    Beautifully empathetic peace of writing.. And a good motivator to read the great novel Plague

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