Sickeningly Familiar: How Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ Hits Way Too Close to Home
In 1947, France was still digging itself from the rubble of World War Two when notorious pessimist Albert Camus published The Plague. Set in Oran, Algeria, the novel relates how the city attempts to cope with the scourge of that most infamous of illnesses, the bubonic plague, and the quarantine necessitated by its arrival.
If you had read it in 2019, you’d probably be struck by the keen philosophical insight for which Camus was so renowned. Read it anytime post-March 2020, however, and the philosophical content largely takes a backseat to the simple day-to-day descriptions of what it’s like to live under the threat of epidemic malady — so familiar have they become.
To put that another way, it’s impossible to read The Plague from the vantage point of 2021 without seeing the stark similarities between Camus’ imagined affliction and our all-too-real pandemic, and not merely in terms of sickness. It’s a matter of Nazis, too.
That’s right — Nazis again. Le sigh.
Coming Down with the Sickness
For the residents of Oran, the plague’s arrival is marked by a mass die-off of rats, which they chalk up as unusual but unconcerning. Even once the disease does make the jump from animals to humans, the town’s leadership attempts to minimize and disregard the situation for fear of causing panic and disrupting business. It’s not until hospitals are packed and the dead are stacked that plague is declared and the city is locked down. From there we watch how the various characters react as they wait for the crisis to abate.
From the vantage of today, the accuracy of Camus’ depiction of life under epidemic is almost incredibly accurate, both in terms of practical considerations like measures taken to combat the plague and less tangible factors like how those grappling with the circumstance react.
On the practical side of things, it’s not hard to see where Camus would have gleaned his detailed understanding of the mechanics of the extraordinary situation. While he was only five during the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918, I think we’ve all come to appreciate that pandemics have a way of leaving an impression, and this experience was bolstered by Camus’ research into a plague that had decimated Oran in 1849.
But that would not explain the accuracy with which he described the townspeople’s reactions, which largely reflected those we’ve seen in the era of COVID. I believe he accomplished this thanks to his rather pragmatic appraisal of his fellow humans.
A Tendency to Ignore Reality
While people can certainly be generous, courageous, and wise — and Camus certainly included these qualities in The Plague as well — they can just as often be shortsighted, selfish, and outright stupid.
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.
The Plague, Albert Camus
All too often, we foolish humans like to imagine that things will continue going how they presently are forever, even though we know very well that major calamities arise all the time. It’s why Trump and Co. dismantled the pandemic response team established under Obama. It’s why Obama’s administration, in turn, failed to adequately stockpile PPE. It’s why so many people are inflexible when faced with the prospect of changing their behavior to suit the circumstance. They were living under the illusion that everything would be as it was, forever.
Then once disaster strikes — as it inevitably will and did — it’s not uncommon for people to choose the ostrich response and bury their heads in the sand.
When Camus’ plague arrived in Oran, city officials bent over backwards ignoring the looming danger, for even though they “knew quite well that it was plague” they “also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of [their] reluctance to face the facts.”
Sound familiar? Remember when COVID was supposed to be gone by April. Of last year?
But nothing drastic could be done by the people in charge to address the threat, because, “[t]heir chief interest is commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.'”
And Camus’ accurate depiction of the response to the epidemic didn’t stop with bungled, hesitant leadership. The citizenry also showed a diverse range of reactions that mirrored those we saw in 2020.
“Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits.”
Some of Camus’ characters accept the need to adhere to restrictions like quarantines, travel bans, and curfews, while others revolt against them, violently in some cases. As the situation evolves, one thing becomes increasingly clear: “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.” And through the highs and lows of the epidemic, those emotions “fluctuated between high optimism and extreme depression.”
Suffice to say that, for Camus, plague afforded the opportunity to see the worst and best that humanity had to offer. And we have certainly seen that too.
We’ve watched videos of shoppers who, when asked to put on a mask, spit in the faces of store employees. But we’ve also watched videos of entire cities cheering on hospital workers.
It’s Not All Bad
For Camus, this theme of selflessness and care is as central to the story as all the negative elements.
The core figures in The Plague are nearly all doctors and do-gooders who spend their every waking hour racing about the city attempting to save lives or otherwise improve the situation as best they can. The efforts of these characters inspired Camus enough for him to declare that, “what we learn in the midst of plagues: there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
I certainly hope that we will come out of our own plague with this much optimism, which was uncharacteristic of Camus. Personally, I’m withholding my final determination in that regard.
The Cancer of Fascism
The more heroic characters in The Plague were largely modeled after the selfless acts that Camus witnessed while working with the French resistance against the Nazi occupation of France. For Camus, the real plague was the arrival of these fascist invaders.
And there too we see a parallel with today, for we live in a time when the cancer of fascism has raised its boot once again, not only in the United States but in Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, Spain, France, Germany (gulp), Greece, the Philippines, India, throughout the Middle East, New Zealand, and beyond. New Zealand, FFS.
Twenty days prior to writing this, right-wing extremists attempted to stage a coup in the United States capitol, and while they failed, we have certainly not seen the last of their efforts. We must remain vigilant.
At the end of the book when the plague is declared over and the city gates are thrown open, as the townspeople celebrate Camus’ stand-in, Dr. Rieux remains wary, concluding, “[h]e knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again…”
Presently we have vaccines rolling out and the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching, albeit slowly. And for the moment the most immediate dangers imposed by modern-day fascists have receded once again into the shadows.
We would be wise, however, to heed Camus’ warning.