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Re-reading Camus’s The Plague in pandemic times

Sometime in the 1940s in the sleepy colonial city of Oran, in French occupied Algeria, there was an outbreak of plague. First rats died, then peopleWithin days, the entire city was quarantined: it was impossible to get out, and no one could get in.

This is the fictional setting for Albert Camus’s second most famous novel, The Plague (1947)And yes, there are some similarities to our current situation with the coronavirus

First, the denials by those in positions of power. Doctor Rieuxthe main character (who turns out to be the narrator) confronts the authorities who reluctantly agree to form an official sanitary commission to deal with the outbreak. The prefect insists on discretion, however, for he is convinced it is a false alarm, or as some would say today, fake news! It is not difficult to hear the echoes of the initial reactions in China and in some parts of the US media landscape regarding the coronavirus.  

In between patient visits, Rieux reflects that though calamities are fairly frequent historical occurrences, they are hard to accept when they happen to us, in our lifetimes. This is the story of placid everyday lives lived as routines that are suddenly, brutally disrupted by a virus: an existential reminder of the arbitrariness of life and the certainty and randomness of death.  The temptation of denial is a powerful one, both in the book and today with the emergence of the coronavirus.  

With the city gates of Oran closing and everyone collectively thrown into interior exilethe gravity of the situation becomes impossible to deny. Families and couples are separated, food rationed and consequently a black market emerges – this reminds us of the run on hospital masks and sanitizing gel in the US, formerly cheap, readily available products, now increasingly sought-after commodities.

As we know, Camus conceived his novel as an allegory for the German Occupation of France from 1940 to 1944, during which families were separated due to the division of the country in two zones, one occupied, one nominally free. In short, the plague is the stand-in for the Germans. 

Here with the coronavirus, the challenge resides not in decoding an allegory, but rather in finding out what the pandemic reveals. In other words, what can a genuine global medical crisis tell us about what is fictional or hidden in our lives?

Paradoxically, in these times of self-imposed exilesschool closings and quarantines, the coronavirus tells us about a different kind of globalization. We have now learned that China manufactures most of our medications and medical supplies – not only our consumer goods – and suddenly emerges in our mind the figure of Chinese worker making our antibiotics and the like: this leads to the stark realization that our survival depends on hers; it is a collective enterprise. We are in it together. This could be the best thing that comes out of the current pandemic.

Feature image: Béchar, Algeria c. 1943 by John Atherton. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. ROGER ALLEN

    I don’t know if it was a conscious decision on Camus’s part, but there is a further denial in La Peste, shared or colluded in by all the characters: the refusal to notice or acknowledge the Arab population of the city.

  2. Zak Gelacek

    Camus addresses that issue early on in the novel where he introduces Rambert. Rieux refuses to comment on the condition of Arabs living in Oran because Rambert admits that he will not be able to give a completely truthful account in his forthcoming article. Read the novel again Roger.

  3. Raphael ELDAD

    As Roger Allen did, I also notice the complete absence of Arabs in the story. Only one mention was about Arabs telling at the beginning about a parliamentary committee visiting the city to check the Arabs welfare. As well, there is no mention of Jews in the story, amazing in a prosper Algerian city where Jews lived since ancient times. It’s strange because of Camus reputation of a man and writer of great universal humanity.

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