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Byron Shire
March 9, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The Plague and You

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Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The Plague and You

When Antonin Artaud delivered his lecture on Camus’ The Plague to a group of students at Paris-Sorbonne University, they all walked out. The creator of the Theatre of Cruelty started by presenting an academic paper on the book about infectious disease and the human condition, and the effects of an epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran. Then he stepped it up a notch. The story of The Plague is ostensibly about the transformation of the obsession with personal suffering when faced with a collective disaster. There is a sense that individuals, usually obsessed with their own personal condition, actually ‘rise above it’ in the face of a disaster that affects all. When Artaud delivered this lecture to university students he started coughing. Then he found it hard to breathe. By the end of his presentation on the plague, he died from the plague. Of course he wasn’t really dead, he acted it out. You can’t develop a thing called the Theatre of Cruelty that is supposed to disrupt the relationship between audience and performer and not do the obvious – die of the plague during the presentation. Imagine if someone did that now! There would be a stampede. Apparently all the students walked out, except one. I think that was Jean Genet. I heard this story so long ago I am a bit sketchy on the identity of who remained.

I woke today thinking about Camus and that book which I read such a long time ago – that stunning chronicle in the scene of human suffering. It feels very timely. Right now the world is gripped by a plague, COVID-19 as we know it.

I have wondered about the name. Was there a COVID-4? Or -5? It’s named like an iPhone and gives the appearance that this is the latest version. Except in this case no one wants to be an early adopter. Every newsfeed is awash with headlines… ‘Hobart man ignored COVID-19 quarantine’, ‘Boy Scouts hold coronavirus training in Milton’, ‘World-famous SXSW festival cancelled over Covid-19 fears’, ‘Single toilet paper roll sells for $1000’.  And yes, that’s true; A NSW man bought a single Woolies homebrand two-ply roll, with a butterfly imprint, for $1k. A 32 pack of Kleenex toot paper sold on eBay for $500. People have assaulted each other in supermarkets over toilet paper supply. It is the stuff of existential literature. Not even Camus took bad behaviour that far.

It’s not the disease that is terrifying. It’s us. It’s what we do because of fear.

This version of The Plague is even more compelling and bizarre than Camus’. He didn’t foresee the role of the media in nurturing the pandemic of fear. Fear is a contagion far more lethal and fast moving than any virus. The media is the incubator and vector for paranoia and hysteria. The viral force of panic has affected worldwide behaviour in a tidal wave of toilet paper buying. Our anarchic madness is more dangerous than a respiratory illness.

I’m intrigued by the story of COVID-19. I understand its potential, and that it is a highly infectious disease with a mortality rate of about 0.2%. To date, it seems only to have killed older and immune compromised people – people who probably would have been just as susceptible to the flu.

Malaria kills one million children annually. One-and-a-half million people died from Tuberculosis last year. There are still close to one million people dying each year from AIDS related illnesses. But that’s in developing countries. Their deaths don’t raise panic among the general population of wealthy countries. Because ‘they’ are not ‘us.’

As of 8 March, according to WHO statistics, there have been 105 586 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 3, 584 deaths worldwide.

In 2018, in the US, 80 000 people died from the flu. You’re much more likely to catch the flu than this coronavirus – so why are people so paranoid? There’s every reason to take COVID-19 seriously – but panic buying? Mask wearing? Even when you’re not immune-compromised… it’s nuts. The media have a lot to answer for. I wonder who the PR Company is for COVID-19 ? Could they please do the campaign for the Climate Crisis and Domestic Violence? With that kind of affect on human response – we’d have two of the world’s most serious issues sorted in a week.

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  1. They all walked out. Student after student slammed their pens down, got up and walked out.
    “Bang” the door slammed behind them.
    This was a momentous day for Paris-Sorbonne University students after lecturer Antonin Artaud delivered his lecture on Camus’s The Plague. This scene now was a divide, each side with anger and with emotional chest-blown pride.

  2. Thank you Mandy for writing a thoughtful and considered argument to maintain common sense.
    Though you seem to have your mortality rate wrong by tenfold, it matters not if you get it and even less if it kills you.

    Remembering that this time last month Italy only had 6 cases now the whole country has shutdown, with Bluesfest due in a month’s time perhaps intelligent and influencial local people should start working to prevent the mass of tourists descending upon the Shire. The sooner we take it seriously the more likely we are to control it.

  3. 105,586 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 3, 584 deaths worldwide is a mortality rate of about 3.4%, not 0.2%, i.e. it’s 17 times more likely to kill you than you imply. Nevertheless, I agree with the rest of your articel.

  4. The human condition, is the human condition, is the human condition….add a (largely) irresponsible media and social media and it’s full scale Armageddon. Seriously feels like we are characters in a Stephen King novel right now.

  5. Watching the news, “fake news” and other COVID-19 commentary over the past couple of weeks, reminds me that, back in 1976 in his seminal work “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to denote ideas and thoughts that could spread from mind to mind, in the same way that genes, bacteria and viruses also spread. These days, ‘meme’ is usually used to mean an animated GIF with a funny caption, but the original meaning is much more subtle than that.

    Dawkins was writing long before the age of the internet or social media that allowed memes to spread and replicate many orders of magnitude faster than through traditional media – and it’s extraordinary to watch the COVID-19 virus – and it’s surrounding cloud of ‘memes’ race across the world. While the virus itself is nothing more than a string of DNA that needs us to replicate, it’s ability to impact our behaviour is mind-boggling.

    You can almost compare it to other infections that change behaviour – for example, a rat or cat (and based on recent research, possibly a human) infected with the infectious bacteria toxoplasmosis will start showing more risk-taking behaviour, and seem oblivious to threats – which increases the chance of the animal being predated and eaten, this increasing the spread of the parasitic bacteria to the predator. COVID-19, it seems, doesn’t even need to infect us to drive us into a frenzy of toilet-roll-tussling, hand-sanitiser-hoarding, baked-beans-buying zombies. It’s not the genes, it’s the memes that are hurting us the most.

  6. Excellent piece, Mandy (despite the quoted mortality rate being wrong).

    I suspect the reason people have gone crazy over loo paper is that they’ve absorbed too much of the sensationalist shit dished up by mainstream “news” and the (anti)social media, the latter being the haunt of conspiracy theorists, misinformed nut cases, and losers seeking validation through “likes”.

  7. Smiling is infectious
    You catch it like the flu
    when someone smiled at me today
    I started smiling too
    I walked around the corner
    and someone saw me grin
    when he smiled I realised
    I had passed it onto him
    I thought about the smile
    and realised its worth
    a single smile like mine
    could travel round the Earth
    So if you feel a smile begin
    don’t leave it undetected
    start an epidemic
    and get the world infected
    Spike Milligan ( wot would he make of us today , eh ?)

  8. According to the latest New Scientist update the mortality rate here quoted is correct, mostly in the over 60’s and immunocompromised. Still this is the same as the Spanish flu of 1918. Of course no one wants to be in that 0.2% or it effect a family member, but maybe it’s a reminder to make the most of life, to look after our health, and care for our community because we all will die in the end. Most people die in their sleep, so be amazed when you awake and do what you would do if was the last of your days. Maybe we will all live more thoughtfully and constructively in wake of Covid- 19. Maybe its Mother Earth’s deadly messenger.

  9. I’m quite sure we can recycle this ditty for COVID-19 (from the 1918-1919 pneumonic (or Spanish) influenza pandemic).

    ‘I had a little bird, it’s name was Enza.
    I opened up the window and in flew Enza.’

    Nah, ‘in flew COVID-19’ is pretty clunky.

  10. George at al. .. you should look up the meaning of the phrase mortality rate.. as should many others. For a change I agree with Mandy. The prediction of true mortality rate is based on about 90% of those infected being asymptomatic or mild which means they have not presented to a doctor or hospital. As the months go on this will become clearer but 0.2% is probably a reasonable guess.. about double the rate of regular flu. The Spanish flu was 2.5%.. so about 12 times more dangerous.

  11. An infection rate cannot be correctly inferred from the current number of deaths divided by the current number of reported cases. The number of cases has to be the number in the cohort that was infected out of which some died and others recovered. Since it takes 6 days+ to die the denominator must be the number of case reported ~ a week ago. That can greatly raise the death rate. Not all cases are reported, many mild cases certainly not, so that can lower the rate by a factor of 2 or so. At present the death rate is unknown, projected between 0.5% and 4%. But the death rate varies greatly with age, with past articles listing 0.2% for people below 40 and rising to 14%+ for elderly. The elderly have a legitimate reason for concern.

    What I notice though, as observed by a commenter here, is that the “death rate” from number of currently reported deaths and cases, at various times and from various countries, is nearly always well higher than the commonly reported 2% (e.g. 3.4% calculated from numbers in this article), and this will be much higher if we use as denominator the number of cases a week earlier, and lower if we allow for unreported cases.

  12. Comparing this to the flu is showing an ignorance. This virus is 10 times as infectious a the flu. It has brought China and Italy to their knees. I don’t know where you got your numbers from, but having followed from, but WHO estimates China’s at 3.7 deaths of those infected. Informed suggestions of 70% of people worldwide infected. If that happened, there is little doubt that it will then there will be over a billion bodies to dispose of. The number of people unable to to do their jobs at anyone time would put a severe dent in any economy.

  13. It’s an interesting story.
    So we see who/haaa.. don’t touch.. no close contact.. wash your hands.. cover your mouth.. tick ✔️ ✔️.. yes..

    & then there’s the close contact, sweaty moshballs, scantly clothed tent event festivals with thousands of people, drunk..’how ya’ goin’ Mate?!’… multiple days of minimal hygiene… was a fest & gig dweller for many many years. It’s just not doable & is incredibly self absorbed.

    I’m with you Lester. Not a bother to me so much. This just doesn’t add up. One hand doesn’t match the other. the behaviour doesn’t match the words.

    We see Melbourne.. gig of 12000 people. Not just from Vic. From all over the country & the world. Add 1 diagnosed, selfish person to the mix of 12000. What do you get? An unknown, unquantifiable situation that is intrinsically difficult to contain efficiently. Along with the possibility of those who may have been unaware of their own situation.

    Scratching my head really. The Government seems to be knowingly creating/permitting scenarios with the highest possible outbreaks or risk of outbreak to occur, yet saying something different.

    Up until now, I thought they were doing ok.. a little bit slow at first. Seems we are back to ‘let’s go to the cricket’.
    So instead of a proper containment.. quick in out scenario.. we see the Faumo & State Government enabling the pandemic scenario.
    Perhaps to drag it out so they can use another obligatory vaccine. No idea! Unfathomably ridiculous!

    It’s like.. the speed limit is 100km.. the max for example. How many of us hug it?

    You know what… swapping realities for a while.
    I think i’ll live in my own sweet bubble & forget the rest. I have a lot to say about this situation.. it won’t end up on the visible catwalk of words.

    Love to everyone that needs it.

  14. Lester – I suggest you enroll in Stats101 at Southern Cross Uni – oops, it’s closed because the panic of misinformation has Trumped intelligence.

    Your statement “but WHO estimates China’s at 3.7 deaths of those infected” is incorrect (assuming you mean 3.7%) as this is only the deaths divided by the number of people who have tested positive – and given they haven’t tested anywhere near enough of the population, you cannot draw any useful conclusion.

    The Flu kills about 0.1% of people who contract it. The guess at this stage is COVID will kill about 0.2%.

    The number of people who have tested positive is not the number of people who have contracted the disease. This will not be known with any degree of confidence for months (or years).

  15. Has anyone seen the thing on YouTube

    Have a chortle & another one.. it’s funny!
    I’m not on social media platforms so I don’t see a lot. I live a ‘sheltered’ kinda’ life. Haaaa!
    I could’ve peed my Grandma’s big whities….
    Don’t tell Nana! Actually she has passed & I have to say.. most amazing woman I have ever met, with the best chortle I have ever heard.
    Urban gypsy living in a 1 bedder in Milsons point. During the depression they lived at the domestic terminal in tin sheds. Caught a tram & busses from there to Balmoral (across the Harbour Bridge for those who may not know Sydney) with her 4 kids. Slept in caves over the top of Balmoral beach & caught the bus & tram back the next day.

    I think we’re doin’ ok!
    We love ya’all


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