from Pakistan

The Plague of privilege: What Camus taught me about sickness

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.

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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.

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:

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.