A motorist suddenly stops in the midst of a rush-hour traffic jam and starts flailing his arms before his face in obvious panic. Then another driver, then another, then another.
The traffic jam is building behind the first commuter, until somebody from the long line behind the first character moves over to the car causing all the blockage, and discovers in horror that the man they have all been hooting at is blind as an owl, and is totally helpless.
This is the beginning of Blindness, a superb novel by Portuguese winner of the Nobel award for literature, Jose Saramago, now sadly passed, a novel that frequently reminds me of how a sudden affliction can change the way we behave with ourselves and with each other.
In Blindness it soon becomes clear that nearly everyone in that town (no name places, no country, no people names, no dates, no season) is going blind, and in a short time a new order is established where practically everyone is blind, and a new hierarchy and social order establishes itself along the lines of the limitations imposed by the mass blindness.
But this is society, and it shall, perforce, be social; this means it has to adapt to the new realities of sightlessness. Some members of the society are apparently able to see a little better than others, and this gives them a slight advantage, although they pretend to be as blind as any other member; and others develop alternative faculties that set them apart from their peers.
Everyone who has some advantage or other, though blind, finds a way to pull a fast one over the others and to maximise their gains, especially when it comes to accessing goods and services whose supply is becoming strained by the affliction that has struck the whole town. (Instructively, at the very beginning, the person who “helps” to drive the first blind man home steals the blind man’s car).
Government responses are understandably confused, seeing as it is a mighty unusual situation and no one knows how to handle it. Patients are herded into quarantines centres, and the conditions there are unbearable, with excrements and dead bodies clogging the corridors.
Rations are erratic and fought over, and those who can cheat to have extra portions have a field day. Soon there are organised gangs grabbing anything they can loot that is destined for those in the detention centres, who cannot get out because troops have been stationed outside the gate with orders to shoot any escapees.
As conditions worsen, all sorts of systems for the exploitation of the weakest members of the cohort come to the fore, with quarantine inmates forced to trade whatever earthly belongings they have, just to stay alive, until they run out of anything they can trade for a little food. Soon, the age-old sexual exploitation of women shows its ugly head.
It’s this last act of abuse perpetrated against the women of the community that spurs an uprising led by the females who throw themselves against the hoodlums who have dominated them using the scourge of blindness that has afflicted their community as cover. The women thus become the spearhead of a popular uprising that overthrows the oppressive system.
Saramago’s is a frightening story, but one that is easy to recognise in our present realities imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The fact that even the most distinguished virologists and epidemiologists have so little knowledge as to how this pandemic will eventually play out, makes us all blind.
As devastating as the pandemic will prove to a great many people around the globe, the smart alecks will try to take advantage of this calamitous situation, and the masses, with their usual credulity, will fall victim to all sorts of schemes and stratagems.
A short while ago I was contemplating the messaging put out to the people in Tanzania. Shall we now all come out and celebrate because we have vanquished the virus? Or, shall we continue taking all the precautionary measures to halt its spread?
In Dar es Salaam, I have witnessed people do the two at the same time, and I have wondered what the double messaging could be in aid of.
The blindness in Saramago’s novel need not be the physical unseeing such as our gallant ophthalmologists have to deal with.
Blindness can be bestowed on a people–or, rather, a people can bestow blindness on itself—with fully functional biological eyes that have been made to see nothing.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]