Amy Patterson By: Amy Patterson
Professor of Politics
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01 Jun 2020 : Reading The Plague in a plague

This is one of those things people shouldn’t do--read some depressing literature during an economic downturn and a pandemic. But given some extra time on my hands, I decided to read Albert Camus’s The Plague (1948), one of those books that I just had never gotten around to reading.  Doing so has been a surreal experience. It is uncanny how some of the descriptions fit the patterns I am observing. A few points. In Part I, the narrator describes the early days of the plague in Oran, Algeria after World War II. (The book is a novel; there was no plague then.) He writes, ‘Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.’  How so like the early days of COVID-19! Willful disbelief! Or perhaps like now? Reopening and the belief that we are still immune? And the town’s prefect initially does not want to take measures, adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude. (Sounds familiar!) But when the government does act, it does so decisively. (Unlike some places in the world today.)

In Part II, during the height of the plague, the narrator writes that ‘so much energy was expended on … hunting round for supplies and lining up that people had no time to think of the manner in which others were dying around them.’ In the story, the community is cordoned from the rest of the world. Supplies are short and people are hungry. Not unlike the rush on supplies in March and April—the lack of yeast and flour, the rationing of meat purchases in the US.  In Part IV, the character Rambert, a French journalist who gets trapped in Oran and initially tries to bribe his way out of the cordoned city to return to his wife in France, shows us his transformation. As he waits for his schemes for escape to work out, Lambert becomes a volunteer with the plague committee to pass the time. Through the experience, he comes to identity with the community and passes up the chance for escape. He says, ‘Now that I’ve seen what I have seen I know that I belong here where I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.’ Reminds me of the people who have stepped forward in this pandemic: helping a neighbor, bringing some groceries, wearing a mask, saying a kind word. Often those people are like Rambert--not the people we might expect.

The book describes the suffering of victims, something that makes me think of all those people who have died from COVID-19—over 100,000 in the US alone. Many of them died alone, not unlike the fictitious plague victims in Oran, who were isolated and their family members, sent to quarantine.

The book’s end reminds us that disease—the plague that ‘never dies or disappears for good’—is always with us. How we deal with it is the test of leadership, community, and humanity. On that point, the narrator concludes that even in a time of pestilence, “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.” May we dig deep during this real plague to find our better selves.

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