Why You Should Read Albert Camus’ The Plague During The Lockdown
April 27, 2020
Uncertainty has become our norm in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of the virus itself is such that it creates not just uncertainty but a rabid fear of the unknown. There has been a noted surge of interest in literary and cinematic representations of similar catastrophes with people turning towards literature and cinema to help make sense of these uncertain times.
Albert Camus’ The Plague is one such novel that people have turned to recently. As a result, the novel has seen a marked increase in sales in France, Italy and England. Originally published in 1947, the novel talks about a fictional plague that devastates Oran, a modern coastal town in French Algiers. The plague’s progress in Oran reflects our world’s similar response to COVID-19. Reading it today is almost like holding up a mirror to our own society and our own reality.
However, The Plague is not prophetic, nor does it predict COVID-19 taking over the world. Instead, it is a deft and incisive portrayal of human behaviour and thinking during the plague. Its similarity with our present reality is alarming, whether in the initial lack of seriousness around the disease or the gradual panic that gripped the people. At the same time, it also teaches us a lot about ourselves.
One World, Many Orans
The Plague begins with a sweeping description of Oran. Just like every other modern town, it has money-minded people going about their business and daily routines. For them, the idea of being ravaged by a plague is impossible, which is why they are shocked when it happens. ‘You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core.’
Oran’s townspeople were completely surprised by the disease’s onset. At first, they were in denial, clinging to life with all their strength. As the number of the diseased increased, so did the fear of the disease and of going about their usual lives. All that was considered a normal part of life such as receiving letters or going swimming in the sea came to a stop. The people progressed from denial to acceptance and later, suspicion, boredom, and unrest.
Back then, the town of Oran was a microcosm of urbanity. Today, it reflects the state of several 21st century cities. More importantly, Oran’s response to the disease shows us how, years later, cities across the world are gripped by a similar progression of emotions toward the virus.
Initial Bureaucratic Apathy
The novel does not begin with the plague at its height. Instead, it develops slowly with the appearance of one dead rat before Dr. Rieux, a doctor and the novel’s impartial observer. Eventually, countless other rats appear across Oran. Though poor sanitation is initially blamed for this unusual phenomenon, the doctors promptly caution the administration when people begin to get fevers and swollen lymph nodes.
While the town’s Prefect is initially wary of taking an alarmist view of the situation, he reluctantly puts certain measures in place. Yet, he refuses to declare it an epidemic. It is only when the death toll suddenly reaches 30 a day that he decides to ‘proclaim a state of plague.’
These reactions are an eerie reflection of the manner in which governments across the world acknowledged COVID-19. China took action quite late, the UK even later. U.S.A. has emerged as the new epicentre of the pandemic and still has not strictly enforced a nationwide lockdown. The WHO declared it a pandemic only after cases rose three-fold outside China. The rapid spread of the virus in Italy took an unprepared government by surprise. India reacted only after the first few cases were detected, enforcing a nationwide lockdown that currently extends till May 3.
This initial denial and apathy have led to delayed responses which have taken lives and burdened healthcare systems drastically, with the U.S.A. and Italy being prime examples. Just as in the novel, declaring the fevers as the dreaded plague sooner would have helped the doctors procure the medicinal serum from Paris to cure patients, similarly, a more proactive global response to the virus could have helped minimise the impact of the outbreak.
Pandemic Of Panic
Perhaps the bureaucracy resorts to secrecy given how people respond to bad news. As a result, panic buying became the most common global reaction to the pandemic.
In the novel, when the town’s gates were ordered to be shut, people were forced to remain wherever they were despite their pleas to be allowed to move around or return. This was paralleled during the sudden imposition of the lockdown in India on March 25, making thousands of migrant workers jobless and homeless in their own country, forcing them to attempt to walk hundreds of miles in order to return to their villages.
People also resort to any solution they think will help. Just like the café’s patrons in the novel believe that guzzling wine will help them protect themselves, similarly, people around us have correlated hand sanitizer and alcohol, believing alcohol will protect them from COVID-19. India has also had its fair share of quack theories floating around, thus highlighting how the fake news virus can be as deadly as COVID-19. Such acts should warn the bureaucracy that secrecy is never a solution. Clear information is vital for people to stop believing everything that they hear or read, especially in this social media-driven world.
Why is it that people behave so differently during the plague? Why is reality so difficult to fathom and process? In the novel, the night watchman at the hotel of Jean Tarrou, a visitor to Oran, initially believes that dying rats foretell an earthquake. Later on, he still believes that an earthquake would have been better because it is ‘a good bad shock, and there you are! You count the dead and living, and that’s an end of it. But this here damned disease, even them who haven’t got it can’t think of anything else’.
These words stand true today. We think of nothing but the disease. It’s halted our normal lives. It’s halted normal interactions. Our lives are on pause and there is very little clarity on the immediate future.
Uncertainty And Exile
Humans tend to think of pandemics as something out of the ordinary but temporary. However, according to Camus’ character, Dr. Castel, who was the first to call the fevers raging in Oran a ‘plague’, pandemics are regular occurrences. People tend to forget them because of their own ego and immodesty: ‘Our townsfolk……they forgot to be modest…thought that everything still was possible for them. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys… How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free.’
Thus, the plague is not as surprising as we believe it to be. Rather, it is the belief that life always follows a specific track that is surprising. Uncertainty is what is constant while stability is the illusion that a pandemic cripples. This, however, does not mean that Camus believed humans should be besieged with suffering, but that we must continue to remain hopeful despite it.
The lockdown has forced us to confront the strange realities of social distancing, isolation, and exile. Thus, being hopeful is easier said than done. Camus has brilliantly recorded the emotional fallout of the plague: ‘The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,’ says the narrator. ‘It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile – that sensation of a void within which never left us.’
The plague in Oran was not as demanding as our reality since only the sick were isolated. Today, we are all isolated in our homes, if we are lucky enough to even have homes. We are in exile from each other and the outside world.
What Should We Make Of All This?
In Oran, as the plague continued unabated, people exhibited ennui, indifference and a lack of interest in their own and others’ lives. As India’s lockdown continues, we too are on the verge of even greater despair as our economy tumbles and humanitarian crises loom ahead, while the battle with the virus carries on. This incertitude causes distress and disquiet.
The line between fiction and reality blurs on reading this novel, leaving us with thoughts of how little we have changed or learned from the past. However, it is imperative to usher in change post the pandemic.
When the plague disappeared, Oran’s citizens celebrated. But Dr. Rieux’s foreboding thoughts warn the readers ‘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….. it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city’.
This, to me, sounds like a warning against complacency and a foolish returning to the previously existing vicious cycles of constant consumption.
Perhaps we need to rethink our privilege during this lockdown, and how much we take for granted. We must consciously change our lifestyles and habits, and focus on governments that endorse policies that prioritise poverty alleviation, health care, and environmental systems.
Let this pandemic be our starting point for bettering the world.
Like many other bookworms, Aakanksha Singh dreams of owning a cosy library and having the privilege of reading books all day! She enjoys immersing herself in a book, exploring worlds through vicarious travel, being one with the character, discovering words and admiring a singular turn of a phrase while trying to commit it to memory. She blogs at The Book Café and shares literary tidbits on her Facebook page, The Kitab Sherni (as she imagines herself not as a book dragon but as a bookish lioness).
Read her posts here.
Interesting analysis. The Hindu’s Weekend supplement carried an article on this book two weekends ago, but that was a straightforward summary. This article properly contextualises the book.