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A sketch of Sisyphus' predicament, often used by existentialists as an analogy for life

Camus’s “The Plague” not only Anticipates the way Pandemics like COVID strike, but also the way People Respond to Them

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

― Albert Camus, The Plague

Reading is a rekindled old hobby for me, but it is not the pandemic that brought back this hobby. It is now almost three years since I started to do it again. In my younger years, I used to read some, but it was not something that I could refer to as substantial or noteworthy. Reading was never exactly a serious hobby of mine. I had always preferred television and movies to reading. Once a while I did pick up a book to read but then had trouble keeping my mind into it. That way, I was never an ardent reader. A majority of my reading also tended to be of the textbook kind or those that I had to do for my work or otherwise articles/columns in magazines or newspapers. That too I preferred the page-three types, the juicy bits of gossips. Other than those, I did not do much in the way of reading. But quite unexpectedly, even to myself, I have started reading again, and I am now doing my second innings of reading, and this time seriously and diligently.

Few months back, and that was last year, I was reading Albert Camus’s The Plague. I got interested in Camus’s writings after I came across his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Everybody has their moments of existential crisis, I guess. Following this essay, I read The Stranger which I found very impressive. I do not have much to comment on Camus’s work. I just enjoy the process of reading his works and have my own interpretations, but I lack the confidence to share my opinions openly with others. I just feel there are a lot of stuff to take back home.

I then furthered on my reading of Camus with the audiobook version of the The Plague. What got me listening in the first place was the disease and epidemic angle in the book. I got a general idea what the book is about but did not complete it then and kept it for a future read.

Then came 2020, and with it, the COVID-19 pandemic. The interest to re-read The Plague kicked in mainly because of the uncanny similarities between what was being narrated in the book and what we are encountering at the moment with the coronavirus pandemic playing out before us. Like many I felt it is kind of prophetic. So this time around I procured a hardcover version online. A somewhat thorough re-read of it was done, and I got to see the eerie similarities between the situations in the book and this present situation of the coronavirus pandemic.

The resemblance and relevance are so striking. In the book, the city of Oran gets infested with the plague bacilli. It begins inconspicuously as a few rats coming out to die. The disease then gradually sweeps over the city, the infection picks up speed, first the rats then the people. Day-to-day lives of the people in the city get disturbed as many residents get infected with the plague and quite a handful die because of it. In order to control the epidemic, the city is quarantined en masse. This situation very much resembles the sudden unexpected pandemic unfolding before us and subsequent partial or total lockdowns imposed in most countries as a desperate move to restrict the spread of the virus.

Here I would like to share a few facts about the author. Albert Camus was a French-Algerian journalist, novelist, playwright, and an essayist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 at the age of 44. Camus started off as a journalist in his native Algeria. His best-known works include his three novels (The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall) and two philosophical essays (The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel). He achieved international acclaim and readership on the basis of these books. Camus died quite young at the age of 46 in January 1960 in an automobile accident when he was at the peak of his career.

“The Plague” (La Peste in French) was published in 1947. The book is interpreted by many as an allegory of France’s plight under the Nazi regime during World War II. Otherwise, it can also be read in the literal sense, and that is how I do, i.e., a city caught up in an epidemic that had to be kept under quarantine, the response of the authority to the situation, and the reaction of the people, individually as well as collectively, to such a grave occurrence.

The story is set in the coastal city of Oran in Algeria in the 1940s. It is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator whose identity is revealed at the end of the book. It begins one April morning when Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot while leaving his surgery. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing which was ignored at that time as the work of mischief doers. But in the days that followed, an increasing number of rats came out to die in the open. The rats had bloated bodies and blood spurting out of their mouths which was an awful sight for onlookers and a massive sanitation problem for the city municipal bodies. Loads and loads of dead rats had to be collected and shipped out of town to be burnt. It also brought on a mild state of hysteria amongst the city folks. They wondered what the unusual phenomenon was pointing at. Then just as the dead rats were disappearing, people started to get ill and die of a strange illness. It was the start of the epidemic. Eventually, the number of infections increased, followed by many deaths. A full-blown epidemic had gripped the city. The doctor and his colleagues by then were quite convinced that the illness was bubonic plague.

Initially when the condition was reported, the authorities acted indifferent and were in denial mode. Only when there was no room for denial that it was an impending epidemic having capacity to ravage the city, the authorities decided to act. Strict sanitation measures got implemented. Finally when it was felt that containment of the disease was impossible, the whole of the city was put under quarantine.

In Camus’s book, it was only the city of Oran that got quarantined. What we are seeing now is not confined to a city or a country, but it is the entire world that is affected. This virus indeed is extremely virulent and spreads exceedingly fast. The whole world, which we now proudly refer to as a Global Village, has come under the grips of the coronavirus.

In The Plague, when sudden imprisonment was imposed on the townspeople, they felt trapped. They also felt an intense sense of longing for loved ones whom they were not able to be with at that moment. People reacted in their own individual selfish ways and the reactions were mostly indulgences in personal distresses. They were quite convinced that their individual pains were unique and far greater when compared to common suffering.

As the restriction was clamped down, the visitors to the city felt doubly exiled as they felt stranded and trapped in a place that was not “home.” There is a parallel situation here too, and that is of the migrants trying to head back to native places. They are the ones most affected.

Dr. Rieux leads the campaign of fighting the plague and is assisted by volunteers. They did whatever they could to lessen the suffering of the affected people by lancing the bubos and administering serum. There was not much that they could do as resources were limited and the ways to heal not certain.

Dr. Rieux’s way of handling the plague is described as “decent.” Despite the limitations and shortcomings, he never gives up but continues to work relentlessly and performs his duties to help the sick and those requiring attention. Decency thus would mean doing whatever that he could do in his best capacity.

The exile period lasts several months. A few months into isolation, the people of Oran start to leave behind their selfish personal discomfort and grievances. Gradually they begin to accept the fact that the plague is a collective challenge, that everyone should be concerned, and that it is their social responsibility to fight it.

As the epidemic runs its course, many succumb to the plague, others survive, and memories of the plague are etched in the minds of the ones who survive it. Plague does not discriminate, suffering is random, and it has the capacity to afflict anybody.

After several months, the epidemic slowly wanes and finally comes to an end. The city people heave sighs of relief; the lucky ones who got through the exile are united with their loved ones. As time goes by, people get back to their usual routines, things go back to the old ways, but Dr. Rieux knows that the war against the plague is never over because the disease-causing bacillus can lie dormant for years, and it is just a matter of time before it gets back at us.

Even after seventy years, it is popular sentiment amongst readers that the book still feels startlingly fresh and real especially in this present context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This book is Camus’s tale of human suffering and their response to pestilences. The city folks never imagined that plague would come their way, but then they found themselves in the middle of an epidemic. The townspeople had to struggle to fight an invisible and invincible killer in their midst. In writing about the responses of the people, Camus highlights what it is to be human in testing times.

It is in times like these that we get to see human resilience and strength, the strength to bear and to fight back. Humans always find the courage to counter whatever challenges that come their way. But first and foremost what is needed is acceptance – acceptance of the situation and the task ahead. Then the rest will follow, the ways and the means to combat whatever that gets in the way.

Coming to the present context, even after so many years, the situation feels alike. In spite of the many advancements made in medical science and technology, humankind still feels astounded and is taken by surprise when faced with such a situation. A feeling of helplessness is always there when we find ourselves facing unexpected challenges.

This book has been read by people over the years and has received great reviews. Now it is being read afresh by readers all over the world. Sales of the book have soared. The focus here is not to promote or glorify Camus or his book but to get the insights and takeaways from it.

Thus, the above is my take on The Plague. I am not doing so in any capacity for I am just a Camus fan, nothing more, and so the process of trying to put it together is no easy task for me. I did so with whatever little that I could understand through my readings of him. With the lockdown impositions all over the world and with lots of time in the hands of people, once again reading is back. So, next time you pick a book to read, The Plague is one good choice.

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