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Coping with COVID-19: Lessons from The Plague

by John Shook
March 25, 2020

Coping with COVID-19: Lessons from The Plague

by John Shook
March 25, 2020 | Comments (7)

Even though a pandemic has long been “predicted” this has still been a shock.

You have better sources than here to stay on top of what is happening, so I will spare you updates from me that would be less timely and authoritative than your usual sources. But I will share a couple of articles that have helped ground my grasp of where we are.

The first, from Bill Gates of all people, who offered the first pronouncement that I read of COVID-19 as the pandemic that he has long warned was coming. And, more current and compelling and closer to “home” wherever your home may be, this personal accounting by Dr. Daniele Macchini of Humanitas Gavazzeni Hospital in Bergamo, Italy. The story he relates of the struggle to keep up in the face of the onslaught of the sickness is reminiscent indeed of Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague. As I have re-read the book, 45 years later, this strikes me as timely as it is profound:

“That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

Aside from those references, what might I share that could be in the least useful or a little interesting? Recognizing that the global pandemic may truly change the world, here are some ways this novel coronavirus is impacting me, personally. I offer not in the spirit of solipsism, but in hopes (more on hope later) that sharing might help us feel connected when so many of us are isolating.  

We – especially old people like me with histories of respiratory problems – are told to hunker down. Here are six thoughts I’m using to guide me toward more effective hunkering:

  • Slow down. Nothing like a forcing function to ensure we all practice what psychologists tell us we need to do, anyway. As for me, I am connecting on-line daily with my grandsons and others. And watching the early appearance of robins and cardinals. That is one of my grandsons (with an online Pokemon Go character) along with my pantry stocked with canned goods that I ordinarily NEVER purchase. But ordinary times these are not.
  • Be compassionate. Any among of us may spared significant suffering, now or over the coming months. I pledge to avoid that deep-down sense – gloating, really, in its essence – that this is just something that is happening to others; I am spared for the same reasons I was born healthy – I somehow deserved it. If it’s not gloating, it’s a moral complacency into which I refuse to fall.
  • Be observant. Just as deep observation leads to empathy (as happens when we observe work with respect in a factory), being humbly observant leads inexorably to compassion. If I am really paying attention, it’s impossible to avoid compassion. There will be a lot of suffering in the coming months. I will not close my eyes. As I practice social distancing, I have an eye on my neighbors, who have pledged to keep an eye on me.
  • Be thoughtful. Humble observation leads here, too. For me, anyway, the past few have been days of deep reflection to contemplate what’s happening, why, what it might mean to me and my loved ones. I am also compelled to think in order to decipher the massive amounts of distracting “information” – no more simple facts, please! To my astonishment, I have been pleased to hear some politicians explicitly distinguish between verifiable “facts” they present and their personal “opinions” and advice – could this crisis lead to more clear-headed thinking in the public realm?!
  • Think long term. The first one (slow down!) tends to naturally take us here. We don’t know the extent to which the COVID-19 crisis is a “this too shall pass” temporary bump – it may be much more – but this is not The End. Today, if we slow down, are we not naturally compelled to think of what really matters, what is important, where do we want to be, where do we want the world to be, tomorrow?
  • Take action today. For much of the population, like me, our first contribution is to stay at home in order to avoid contributing to health system overload. For the many who need to be out and about and even on the front lines of the battle, simple isolation is not an option. Efforts to mobilize on multiple fronts – from craftsman making masks to factories producing PPE – are inspirational, indeed!

Can we connect our day-to-day actions and musings to our long-term, ultimate even, aspirations? Never a better time than this to dream, for those of us fortunate enough to have mental and emotional space. Dr. Macchini has no time for idle dreaming. Where is the PPE, the ventilator, the caregiver? How is this patient faring and where is the next one? As he says, “The war has literally exploded and battle are uninterrupted day and night.” No time for musing.

Rarely are we humans compelled so powerfully to awareness of how we are all in the same boat. Can we be one human team? As Dr. Macchini says: “There are no more surgeons, urologists, orthopedists, we are only doctors who suddenly become part of a single to face this tsunami that has overwhelmed us.” Italy has been hit hard. Wuhan was caught unawares, forced to scramble. The USA is on the cusp. I am terribly fearful for Africa, when (not if) it hits there. Healthcare system(s) in Africa will NOT be able to cope.

For Camus, who like Dr. Macchini saw the fight against pestilence as war, “hope” was the enemy. The enemy of humanity. But, from I sit today (I may sit somewhere else or lie prone tomorrow), hope embodied in action - such as displayed by Dr Macchini and countless caregivers and responders and families and friends around the world - is in itself medicinal. Is there more powerful medicine than to take caring action?  To close again with Camus:

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true.”

Keywords:  global,  learning,  problem solving,  reflection
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Andrew Bishop March 26, 2020


Thanks for that.  We turn to our teachers in times like these, so it’s great to hear from you.

Compassion, courage, and a willingness to face facts and take appropriate action will get us through this.


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John Shook March 26, 2020

Thank you, Andrew. I've been struck at how the how folks have risen to meet the need for community. I am hearing from people I haven't heard from in years. I am in more frequent contact with family members than I have been in a long time. I really think we all needed to hit a re-set or slow-down button. Surely we have the opportunity to come out of this stronger. 

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Michel Baudin March 26, 2020

The plague in Camus' book is a metaphor for what he felt he had to combat regardless of the odds or the effectiveness of his actions. He wrote it two years after the end of World War II, in which he had fought in the resistance. A few years later, his native Algeria was itself the object of an 8-year, brutal war of independence that tore him apart.

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John Shook March 26, 2020

Thank you, Michel. Camus a figure I hadn’t thought about in years. Tom Ehrenfeld brought up The Plague, sending me back to it, "pestilence" his metaphor for what is wrong in the world, demanding resistence. It’s amazing how the feeling of reading Camus returns so immediately many years later, for me at least 45 years later (how time flies). Like many of his contemporaries Camus seemed impacted so deeply and personally by what was going on around him, the lousy state of the world. Your comment is reminiscent of Myth of Sisyphus, as well.

I imagine one impact of this imposed isolation will be to send us back to familiar, dear novels. I hear just before they closed, bookstores experienced a run on Catcher in the Rye! Old books, old movies, kinda like comfort food? 

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Tom Ehrenfeld March 26, 2020

Huh, I always read Camus' book as simply a tale of plague in a large French port on the Algerian coast in the 1940s; what I love about this book is how powerful and resonant the messages of this story are. I've found echoes of the story and the observations of the characters in other historical moments, and find many of its insights into life today pretty revelant. Michel, I suspect you've read it in the original language!

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John Shook March 27, 2020

Remembering book reports from philosophy class now...

I wonder what people are reading now, during this time of self-quarantining? Novels? Self-help books? Chemistry texts?

Tyler Vonderheide April 02, 2020

John, your articles have inspired me.  Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on the COVID-19 situation.  May my eyes be open to those around me and my heart be available to those in need.

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