Lessons from Camus’ The Plague

The Covid-19 pandemic, as in all crises, brings out the best and worst of humanity. There is heroism and perfidy, complacency as well as discontent and cynicism; despair, anger, and fatalism. All told, individuals exhibit a wide spectrum of emotions, mind set and attitudes towards a distressing event such as the present pandemic now sweeping the globe.

In the 1940s, French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus wrote an existentialist classic entitled La Peste (The Plague) which hauntingly captures the varying responses and struggles of people in today’s societies. Le Peste portrays characters as they struggle against the plague (the Bubonic plague) sweeping a city in Algeria called Oran. Although a fictionalized piece of literature set in the 1940s, the Plague is believed to be a depiction of true events in the coastal city of Oran, Algeria which has been decimated by intermittent outbreaks of cholera throughout its long history.

The story begins when thousands of rats inexplicably begin to die on the streets of Oran. As the populace begin to notice the unexplained deaths, hysteria develops, and the people begin collecting and cremating the rats fearing of the spread of bubonic plague. As more and more people fall ill and die, the town is sealed off, gates are shut, rail travel prohibited, and all mail service suspended. In today’s lingo, Oran was put on enhanced community quarantine.

Throughout all the stages of the plague, Albert Camus portrays how the different characters of the story cope with their own struggles, their pains, despair and finally redemption; how some of them rise up to overcome their demons and channel their efforts to do good to their fellow human beings. Camus’ characters mirror our own attitudes and responses towards the current coronavirus pandemic. 

The main character of the novel is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a middle-aged doctor who finds himself at the epicenter of a cholera outbreak in Oran. He is torn between taking care of his wife who has become ill of the plague and his professional duty to care for the victims. Initially ill at ease about the plague, he finally grasps the gravity of the situation, seeing that many are falling ill and dying helplessly, and decides to devote all his expertise as a doctor to alleviate the suffering of the victims.

Dr Rieux engages in this task not for any religious compulsion or moral high code but primarily because it is his duty as a doctor. His warnings about the seriousness of the epidemic fell on deaf ears as the authorities refuse to take him seriously. He then exhaustively treats patients in their homes and in the hospital.

Amidst the despair and helplessness of the dying and suffering, Dr. Rieux remains a pragmatic man; he knows all too well that despite his superhuman struggles, he cannot win against death.

Dr. Rieux remind me of Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who in late December when a mysterious SARS like virus began to infect people, warned fellow colleagues about a possible outbreak of a SARS like illness. The local authorities of Wuhan summoned and admonished him for “making false comments on the Internet”. Despite these threats from the authorities, Li returned to work, eventually contracted the virus and succumbed to the disease. He is now hailed as a hero while the local authorities were dismissed by the Chinese government for fumbling their jobs.

Today, many health workers – doctors, nurses and other health professionals, medical students as well in among others China, Italy, Iran, Spain, and right here at home – are putting their lives on the line every day to save others. Like Dr. Rieux, they do so out of a sense of duty: this is what they signed up for and they will do what has to be done.

Not everyone is as noble and morally righteous as Dr. Rieux.

There are the government characters – Joseph Grand, the Prefect, and M. Othon who is the magistrate. In them, we see diverse reactions of today’s public officials to the epidemic – from the initial denial and inaction to a single-minded bid to stop the pandemic.

Raymond Rambert, a journalist, finds himself trapped when the plague breaks out in Oran. He makes a number of attempts to escape but fails. Finally, he decides to stay in the city to help fight the plague.

Making the same choices is Jean Tarou, a disillusioned revolutionary. 

Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, believes at first that the plague is a punishment from God and preaches this to his congregation. But then something happens that changes his mind as I will write in the next column.

Finally, we have Cottard, a secretive and shady figure. During the plague, he engages in smuggling and becomes wealthy.

Hopefully, in today’s pandemic, we would not have too many Cottards.

Borrowing from another work of Camus “Artist at Work”, there are two choices we have in front of a plague: we can be solitary, that is selfish and self-centered, or we can choose solidarity even with social distance. As the Prime Minister of Italy has said, “Restiamo distanti oggi per abbracciare domani.” (“We remain distant today so we can embrace tomorrow.”)

What kind of country and world we will have after this pandemic depends in the choices we make in the days, weeks, and months to come.


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