Life has to go on in the midst of the calamity that is Covid-19
As the Covid-19 virus, with its attendant mutations, goes on haunting the entire world, and with medical scientists struggling to find solutions to this deadly virus, it once again seems that life is absurd after all.
Following the end of World War II, the devastations from the fallout of the war had stunned Europe. Writers and philosophers could not rationalize as to why so many innocent people had to die for things that had nothing to do with them. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) worked as a springboard to the rise of the absurd theatre that reflected life as bleak, hopeless, miserable, incomprehensible, and in the end absurd.
As we look around, we can feel a similar bleakness and despair incapacitating people in our own country and abroad. The images of humans dying in ambulances as they wait in vain to get a hospital bed, or the pain and devastation of families that have lost their loved ones once again raise questions that Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, or Tom Stoppard ask in their plays: What does life mean actually? When is the wait going to end?
The themes of Camus’s philosophical essay and the plays of Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Adamov, Stoppard and others have again become relevant to the ongoing pandemic that has shockingly shrunk human strength. As scientists continue to carry out myriad studies to put a stop to the deadly scourge, innocent people are dying like insects in every part of the globe.
A virus that cannot be seen with our eyes has already taken a heavy toll of human lives, other than creating severe economic problems in many countries of the world. The poor are getting even poorer as governments are struggling to create safety nets to rescue those who are unable to arrange two square meals a day.
Our pride and vanity have vanished in front of this novel virus. Our strength and ego have been flattened by Covid-19 fore-fronting the questions asked by the playwrights of the absurd theatre. Reality is no longer soothing for us; instead, it seems we are dwelling in a world gradually going beyond our control. Replacing happiness and satisfaction, endless pain and suffering are in store for us.
In Samuel Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot (1953), the two homeless vagabonds, Estragon and Vladimir, go on waiting for Godot who never appears, as the two characters ultimately leave the scene after waiting for many hours. We have been waiting for Godot for 17 months since the Covid-19 appeared like a nightmare. As of yet, we are stuck: Our clocks and watches have stopped. We are not aware of any specific timeline that would lead to the elimination of the pandemic responsible for killing millions of people throughout the world.
In Bangladesh, the sudden increase of daily deaths and the alarmingly high percentage of infected people who took the Covid test are creating confusion and chaos. Lockdowns have failed to decrease the number of fatalities. Experts hold different opinions as to how quickly the spread of the virus can be controlled. Against this backdrop, the government has started mass vaccination with the hope of killing the virus for good by the end of next year.
This is an uncertain world like the world we see in the plays of Beckett, et al. We have retreated to the safety of our homes like the characters of Harold Pinter’s plays. The outside world is far too dangerous for humans, and only the room in the home can stop the evil from coming in. Like the characters of the absurd plays, we have become sceptics in the wake of this devastating blight.
In the end we have to stand up, for life has to go on in the midst of this calamity. Human beings have survived pandemics from time immemorial, which gives us a renewed courage of being able to destroy the Covid-19 virus.
The absurd playwrights were not nihilists, although they found plenty of incongruities and irrationalities in human existence. They thought humans would stand up after every fall for they have the resilience to survive.
We will also stay alive in the end as we have done after every pandemic that has threated human survival over the last thousands of years.
Golam Sarwar Chowdhury teaches English at Notre Dame University Bangladesh.