Life Before Death

Bishop Edward King Chapel

Our ancient forbears had a Latin phrase we would do well to remember: ‘salus populi, suprema lex esto’ (‘public health is the highest law, and all else follows from it’). So, the marketization of health, welfare and other forms of basic care runs enormous risks for both developed and developing countries. Healthcare, rather like education, is an inherently not-for-profit enterprise. 

Why? Because everyone matters. And everyone eventually picks up the bill for the deprivation of education and healthcare in other places, because it will always directly or indirectly affect the whole of society. Politicians and people can try and evade their official and civic duties and responsibilities; but cannot avoid the consequences of such neglect. What we sow, we reap.

Snowden’s book confirms what we know from other more popular studies of medieval England’s health. Jack Hartnell (Hartnell, 2018), John Hatcher (Hatcher, 2008) and Ian Mortimer (Mortimer, 2009) all give interesting insights into how the plague-pandemic of the time re-ordered society – politically, financially and socially. For example, people born to serfdom might suddenly find that they were beneficiaries and heirs. Pandemics redistributed power and money; they challenged authorities and prevailing social constructions of reality; they promoted new consciousness, and reordered priorities.

The common denominator across these studies is that there is not much one can do to escape pandemics and their social and economic consequences. Plagues come and go. We are seldom ready for them. When confronted by their reality, we often go into denial. The numbers published on Covid-19 have as much impact as the Bills of Mortality in 1665. Inside, most people say to themselves, as they have done in previous centuries, ‘it won’t happen to me’. 

In the short, prescient 1947 novel The Plague or La Peste by Albert Camus (1991) we encounter a story that narrates a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. Initially, just a few die; then some more; then even more. Panic grips the streets as the epidemic enfolds the population. No one was ready for this, and few thought any plague could draw near to them. 

The citizens of Oran live in a state of perpetual denial. Even when, like London in 1665‒66, a quarter of the city is dying, they reason it will not be them. These folks are, after all, living in modern times. They have newspapers, cars, aeroplanes and telephones. The people of Oran cannot, surely, perish like the poor wretches of seventeenth-century London or eighteenth-century Canton?

The hero of the book is Doctor Rieux, and his resilient humanism is profoundly moving. He does not buy into the religious interpretations of the plague offered by a local priest, or of the abrogation of reason by the citizenry. As the death-toll peaks at 500 per week, Doctor Rieux reflects on a child he has tended, but who has died. He reasons that suffering is unevenly and randomly distributed. For all the theodicy in the world, suffering simply makes no sense. It is absurd – and that is the kindest thing one can say of it. 

How does Doctor Rieux respond to what is going on around him? He works tirelessly to lessen the suffering of those in his care. But he is no hero. As he later remarks that ‘[this] may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.’ Another character enquires of him as to what decency is. ‘[Just] doing my job,’ replies Doctor Rieux. In other words, duty and vocation come first. He is committed to caring for others in need. Little more need be said.

Should this, or any plague, panic us? Camus’ novel suggests not, because panic is an immediate reflex response to a dangerous, but essentially short-term condition from which we can flee and seek safety. But in life, there is no guaranteed security. From Camus, through Doctor Rieux, we learn the following lesson. That we need to love our fellow humans (whether we like them or not, no matter how long they live for, or how much time they take to die), and work with courage and hope for the relief of suffering. Life is ultimately a hospice, not a hospital. We are here to provide some salve in the midst of desolation and despair.

As the novel closes, Doctor Rieux opines that ‘this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory’, because the plague never dies; it ‘waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers’ for the day when it will arise again. One might think this is a depressing note to end this novel on. Yet I do not think so. It is profoundly humanitarian. In selecting this adjective ‘humanitarian’, I choose the word with care. 

Because to be humanitarian is to have a binding duty and concern for helping to improve the welfare of people, and this pulse can spring from moral and religious roots. To be a humanitarian can be religious and humanist (and neither party will mind which), because it is about valuing people as inherently precious. Or as God would value them. The result is the same. It is the lesson of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Or the Ten Lepers (Luke 17). Goodness for goodness’ sake: not for gratitude. Or for converts. Mercy matters.

Correspondingly, there is nothing explicitly ‘Christian’ about Dame Cicely Saunders and her founding the modern hospice movement. Committed to the alleviation of suffering, she wrote to her patients: ‘You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life … we will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.’ 

Similarly, Chad Varah, a Curate from Lincoln, founded the Samaritans to help the suicidal and the depressed. All it took was the suicide of a young teenage girl, traumatized by her commencing menstruation, to restart Varah’s vocation. 

Both these examples are profoundly humanitarian, and the religious pulses within them are lively, if implicit. Sometimes it is only the shock and despair at the manner of people’s deaths that leads us to review actual lives of others, and how to respond. Think Live Aid. Think Christian Aid. ‘We believe in life before death.’