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Abandoning the blind} ?> These days, humanitarian aid is a no-brainer. When a country with limited resources, doctors, and medicines faces mass illness, we help out as much as we can. Still, I wonder what would happen if we encountered a new disease. Would we be quick to help, or would we let fear and hysteria win out?
José Saramago explores the possibilities of what would happen if everyone suddenly went blind in his 1995 speculative work, Blindness. His description is very bleak.
One day, a man sitting in his car goes blind. His wife takes him to see a doctor, who can’t find anything wrong with his eyes. Later that night, the doctor goes blind. Then everyone who was in the doctor’s waiting room. The doctor alerts the director at his hospital, who tells the Ministry, and a plan is quickly concocted to quarantine everyone who is blind, along with everyone who has had contact with a blind person, in an old asylum until further notice.
The first arrivals are given a list of 15 rules, which are blasted through the intercom in their ward. These include: any attempt to leave will result in instant death (there are armed soldiers guarding the asylum); in the event of an
There is one person who doesn’t go blind: the doctor’s wife. She feigns blindness so she can accompany her husband to the asylum. The story is told through her eyes as she helps her husband and the others in her ward during their time in the asylum. She alone sees the horrors that take place there.
I was struck by the cruelty in the Ministry’s immediate response when it came to dealing with the sudden mass blindness. The Minister and President of Security settle on the asylum because it has two wings: one for the blind and one for those who are suspected of having the disease. If someone who is suspected of having the disease becomes blind, they can simply be transferred to the other wing. But the Minister brings up a problem: “We shall find ourselves obliged to put staff there to supervise the transfers, and I doubt whether we will be able to count on volunteers.”
The President responds by saying, “I doubt whether that would be necessary, Minister, should anyone suspected of infection turn blind, as will naturally happen sooner or later, you may be sure, Minister, that the others who still have their sight, will turn him out at once.”
They rely on the depravity of humans to do their job for them. They know that their patients are afraid, they know that humans are selfish, and so they know that the patients will turn on each other. No one on the outside looks for a cure or even tries to help the patients because they are so afraid of being the next to go blind.
The other wards fill up until the asylum has 300 people in it. One ward of men takes over all of the food and demands payment from the others if they want to eat. Another ward guards the water. With no one employed to take care of cleaning, the toilets become backed up and the patients stop using the bathrooms all together. The asylum becomes a hell on Earth, and it is only when a fire starts, and the doctor’s wife sees that there are no more armed guards, that she and the others in her care are able to escape.
In this situation, I think setting up a quarantine was a good call; this was a new illness with an unknown cause and an unknown cure. Caution was necessary. But I think Blindness takes the human response to the extreme. Abandoning those who need help is cruel and unjustified. I would hope that, if our world ever faces a new and terrifying illness, we have the courage to work towards finding the cause and the cure, even if we all go blind in the process.
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