Ursula K. Le Guinn’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is one of the best-known short stories in all fiction. It won the 1974 Hugo Award, but it’s not necessarily fantasy or science fiction. The term “philosophical fiction” is being commonly used, and for a good reason: the story caused generations of readers to analyze it to its greatest detail and draw their own conclusions. It is time that I do the same, while drawing parallels to governmental response to the Covid pandemic.
The short story describes the prosperous city of Omelas. Its inhabitants are happy and seemingly carefree, as they are about to begin a large festival. But, as the author points out, the relaxed mood is not the result of some kind of intellectual degradation. If anything, the people of Omelas are fairly normal humans, with the only difference being that they were born into a city where everybody has what they want, and nothing causes addiction or hunger for more of the same. They are acutely aware of their luck, so they treat it responsibly. They know that their good fortune is caused by a single individual: a little child that is locked away in a dark cellar, completely neglected and living the most miserable life one could imagine. The child is malnourished, with its limbs and mind atrophied, sitting in its own filth and not understanding why it needs to suffer for its entire short life. The others understand: it is the child’s suffering that guarantees the prosperity of everyone else. At a certain age, every inhabitant goes to see the child. Some feel a degree of guilt but go on with their lives. They know that saving the child would doom everyone else, so in the grand scheme of things they are better off doing nothing. There are few, however, who just get up and leave Omelas for good.
On the surface, the story is about the worldbuilding. Le Guinn takes great pleasure in describing the wonders of Omelas and the life in the city. She tries very hard to describe the ultimate paradise, with all the vices of the real world, without corrupting the people in Omelas. She is also quite graphic in portraying the suffering of the little child, to a degree where I felt uncomfortable. She never goes into an explanation of why this rule exists, or who created and enforces it. Everything in the story is a given. In contrast, she dedicates barely a paragraph to those who leave Omelas, and she refuses to describe where they are actually heading. So, nobody knows whether the land behind the hills is so hostile it would kill them, or whether it’s even more favorable than Omelas, and they’ll be rewarded for leaving the city. This is what makes these few people the most interesting part of the story. What is their motivation, and how does it outweigh the risks of the unknown?
I believe that Le Guinn was trying to point a mirror at the reader, to force him to identify with either the happy people, the little girl or those who walk away. I immediately bonded with the last group, and I started projecting my personality on them. In my mind, they simply refuse to participate in a discriminatory society. They have a moral compass that is so strong that they have the power to reject the society and leave. They know that if they acted any differently, they’d just increase the overall pain and suffering, so doing good means to leave altogether. They don’t destroy the happiness of the majority, and they don’t take advantage of the little child’s suffering. By leaving, they show the courage to make the only moral choice there is.
What does this have to do with Covid, you may ask. I’d like to draw some parallels here. They will not be perfect; after all Le Guin could not have predicted a global pandemic and the governments’ response to it, but I think they fit rather nicely. In this story, we have the vast majority of people participating in a social activity, a festival, while a tiny fraction of people, represented by the child, is forcibly kept from the society. Precious few, upon learning that they can socialize because the little child cannot, decide to shun society as well. In the late stages of the Covid pandemic, many countries also had two groups of people: those who were vaccinated, and by the virtue of their vaccination passes could socialize in pubs, restaurants, sometimes even night clubs. They’ve had the freedom of their cities. A tiny minority that was unvaccinated or did not recover from Covid couldn’t do anything. They could barely purchase basic items, and they were excluded from restaurants, pubs, cinemas, and other venues. Sure, they did not suffer as much as the little child, but the mechanism was the same: by excluding the unvaccinated, the vaccinated and recovered could lead a happy life again. However, there were precious few, who were vaccinated, but refused to participate in a society that discriminated against a group of people.
I was one of them. I remembered the original ideals of “everyone being in this together”. Unlike many others, I did not think it meant forcing everyone to comply with a vaccination mandate; instead, it was an expression of solidarity with everyone. I believed in science and got vaccinated. I also believed that vaccination would protect others and was beneficial for the entire society. However, I did not agree with dividing the society and discriminating against a minority. So, I made the only moral decision I could: I walked away from my Omelas. I refused to participate in anything that required the use of the vaccination pass. I did not travel until all restrictions to my destination were lifted, and I did not go to any social venues. And here’s the most interesting thing: I didn’t feel the need to explain myself to anyone. I didn’t preach about my virtues. I didn’t even mention to anyone what I was doing. This has fully exposed Le Guinn’s genius: she perfectly understood and described the moral few who do the right thing for their own benefit, and nobody else’s. They don’t need to justify their actions, but they are willing to go through great lengths to feel better about themselves. In this regard, there may be multitudes of people who walked away from their Omelas, and we’d never hear their stories. Le Guinn was the only one who managed to tell their story, and mine.