Government in times of plagues

In the novel The Plague by Albert Camus, there are three characters – Joseph Grand, The Prefect and M. Othon – that represent how government officials responds to pestilence. In this coronavirus pandemic, their responses are mirrored by today’s officials.

First let us examine Joseph Grand. He is a fifty-year-old clerk working for the city government.  A poorly paid government functionary, he leads an austere life. When the plague started to ravage the city of Oran, Grand joins a team of volunteers, acting as its general secretary, recording all the statistics. He is described as “the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups.” Grand also catches the plague himself but thankfully recovers.

Second, The Prefect. He believed at first that the talk of plague is a false alarm. He plays it safe so that when things do not work out, he will not be made to account. He waits for somebody to give the order. But as soon as the effects of the plague become undeniable, he finally takes responsibility for tightening up the regulations and issuing the order to close the town.

Many government leaders are much like the Prefect – who tried to downplay the crisis as long as possible, refused to make decision, prioritized the economy at the expense of human health, and were forced to capitulated and take the necessary containment and mitigation measures only because the emergency has become too big and a potential catastrophe begins staring them in the face. Wuhan, Northern Italy, the Philippines, the USA, Spain, etc. would not be where they are now if only leaders acted early and decisively.

Finally, there is M. Othon, the magistrate of Oran. He treats his wife and children unkindly, but after his son dies of the plague, his character softens. He contracts the plague and dies. M. Othon today lives in officials who passively and helplessly wait for what will unfold next, paralyzed by their own circumstances.

Thankfully, in this country, we have more Joseph Grands than Prefects and Othons.

There are six real frontliners in the war vs COVOD-19. Many of them are like Grand, selfless servants of the people, but some act more like The Prefect and M. Othon – hesitant, reluctant, unable to make sacrifices.

First, there are our heroic health workers – doctors, nurses, medical technologists, and support staff who work in public and private health facilities and chaplains, ministers, and religious that serve the sick. Every day, they are out there treating patients, saving lives, and accompanying the dying, they risk their health and lives.  Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. When this is over, never again will doctors and nurses be a butt of jokes or of snide remarks about how many of them just want to go abroad to get rich.

Second, there are Local Government officials – from governors, mayors, and barangay leaders to their staff – who is the main presence of government in most places. In Metro Manila, I would include Mayors Vico Sotto, Isko Moreno, Rex Gatchalian, Francis Zamora, Abby Binay, and Joy Belmonte. Mayor Joy has been criticized in social media but I think that is more due to politics and sexism than any major inadequacy on her part. These officials, including many in the provinces, are like Grand.

We need more not less local autonomy in the response to COVID-19. Diminishing their powers and role, even for the theoretically laudable goal of a unified approach, is counterproductive. In an archipelago, a national framework to respond to a big disaster but it must be flexible to allow local leaders to adapt and innovate as their particular situation might require.

Third, some national officials who are 24/7 directing the country’s unified effort, including the health secretary, cabinet secretary, and local governments secretary – and their support staff are also frontliners and making big sacrifices as Grand did. We must support them.

Fourth, there are our public safety people – they police and military who are deployed to do several tasks without adequate training and equipment. They are, like Grand, risking their lives and health because of their sense of duty.

Fifth, we must not forget the herculean efforts of  social workers, community leaders, and volunteers, including those in church organizations and NGOs, that are serving the poor and making sure their needs are met in this difficult time. Joseph Grand would be proud of them.

Sixth, sadly the poor and marginalized are in the battleground not by their own choice and without protection. One big gap in Camus’ novel is that there are no Arab characters and no noteworthy female characters. But in any plague, the excluded are in the middle of the pestilence. Their stories are just as important.

Everyone else, including politicians, are not in the frontlines. We can help but let’s not exaggerate our role. Otherwise giving politicians preference in testing would be entirely justified. That this is happening – preferential treatment in testing for the coronavirus of asymptomatic legislators and officials and worse their families  – is totally unacceptable. This must be stopped and an independent investigation must be launched so that people can be held accountable.

In a plague, let’ s all act more like Joseph Grand and not follow the example of The Prefect and M. Othon.


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