Albert Camus published his novel, The Plague, in 1947, and there are many similarities with our current response to the pandemic. Camus describes the ineffectiveness of the authorities; the complacency of the citizens in the early days and the challenges and dilemmas forced on individuals. The novel highlights the powerlessness of individuals to affect their destinies, the very essence of absurdism. Some of the psychological impacts have a resonance with citizens today, leading them to display behaviour patterns – like mass civil unrest on beaches, illegal raves and street parties – resulting in violence and murder.

One interpretation of such behaviour is that the threat of death displaces the meaning of life and what it means to be human. This, coupled with the ambiguous communications from government and health officials, can seem like an experience of absurdity. Citizens end up feeling powerless against an impersonal, but authoritative force, and the Government is incapable of resolving the civil unrest which ensues.
As one resident in Bournemouth (where half a million people flocked to their sandy beaches) watched aghast as groups of revellers took drugs and drank their way through countless crates of beer he thought “There was a Lord of the Flies vibe about it. The atmosphere was ugly”.
Litter picking groups described the sight and smell as “horrendous, like nothing they had ever come across before. There was the smell of weed, urine, and excrement: empty beer cans and bottles ,wet wipes and even underpants covered the ground”.
Absurdity can be used as a term to criticise any actions the government takes, such as a social distancing system, that does not make sense. As described in Camus’ novel, it can arise spontaneously when individuals are faced by an external world that removes the meaning they seek to create.

References to absurdity in our daily life can be seen in newspaper headlines highlighting false news and confused messaging. This, coupled with those in power overtly disobeying their own advice and rules and lacking any sense of humility and authenticity, gives rise to a growing mood of defiance and frustration.
Should we question to what extent absurdity is a relevant concept for criticising how Governments around the world have responded to the pandemic? We might accept that governments are struggling with absurdity as best they can. More critically, perhaps is the question of whether politicians deliberately seek to invoke absurdity, and if so why?
Is chaos and civil unrest the likely outcome of other crises, like climate change, social inequality, or further pandemics? The UN and WHO are predicting more pandemics because they are one of the dire consequences of the dramatic decline in biodiversity across the planet.

Published by Steve Martin

Steve is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies and Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future and has served as a trustee for WWF(UK). He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and President of the sustainability charity Change Agents UK. He is currently a member of the Access Forum for the Peak District National Park and is supporting the local district council on its Climate emergency programme.

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