Camus in the time of COVID-19: Reflections on “The Plague”

May 24, 2020 in Uncategorized

I

In 1947, the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) published his novel La Peste.  It was subsequently translated into English as The Plague.  At first blush the novel is a chronicle of events that occurred in the port city of Oran, in the north-west of Algeria, in the 1940s.  An outbreak of a virulent strain of bubonic plague, and fears that it would spread further afield, prompted the authorities to close the city gates and so place the city’s entire population in quarantine.  This period of sequestration endured for some ten months.  In the chronicle, the narrator (whose identity is only revealed at the very end) describes the medical, social and psychological impact of the disease on the city’s inhabitants.

However, all is not quite as it seems.  As a matter of fact, there was no plague epidemic at Oran in the 1940s.  The city, which is believed to date back to about 900 AD, had experienced severe visitations of plague in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Cholera also wiped out a substantial proportion of the city’s population in the mid-1800s.  Since then, plague has periodically returned to the city (most recently in mid-2003: see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851531/).  On these occasions, however, it was diagnosed early and, with the benefit of modern prophylactics, the authorities were able to contain it to relatively minor proportions.  There was no significant incidence of plague at Oran in the mid-twentieth century.  So we know that the events related by the mysterious narrator of The Plague are fictitious.

Indeed, Camus himself alerted the reader to the fact that the chronicle recorded in The Plague was not an account of events that had actually occurred at Oran, or anywhere else for that matter.  In an epigraph on the title page, Camus prominently quoted from the preface to Daniel Defoe’s epistolary novel Robinson Crusoe (1719): “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!”  Thus we know that The Plague was not concerned with an actual episode of plague or some other health crisis, or with events that had actually taken place at Oran.  And as the reader becomes absorbed in the pages of the book she discovers that it is a multi-layered allegory of more profound maladies afflicting human existence.

Yes, at a primary level The Plague is concerned with the palpably deleterious effects of the contagious disease, and of the resultant quarantine imposed on Oran, on the city’s citizens.  We read about the municipal and medical authorities’ initial denialism in the face of growing evidence that their community was being confronted by a potentially calamitous outbreak of fatal disease.  We read about the authorities’ dilly-dallying in taking half-hearted measures to address the growing crisis.  (“Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold.”)  We read about the selfless activities of Dr Bernard Rieux and his squad of civilian volunteers who “roll up their sleeves” in a seemingly hopeless campaign to deal with the medical aspects of the spreading disease.  We read about the apprehension, and then the panic, that spreads among the city’s inhabitants as the disease begins to claim an ever-increasing number of lives.  We read about the impact that all of this has on the daily lives, and on the minds, of the city’s population as they finally have to face the uncertainty of being locked inside a disease-ridden city for an indefinite period and without hope of medical security.

In the early chapters of The Plague we read about the prelude to the epidemic – rats dying in the streets of Oran in unprecedented numbers.  These were “premonitory signs of the grave events” that were to ensue.  It was only when the townsfolk began to show “signs of uneasiness” that the municipality (which “had not contemplated doing anything at all”) convened a meeting to discuss the situation.  Initially, not everyone was alarmed.  Some had “other things to think about.”  Others thought it was somebody else’s “headache” to deal with.  After a brief period of “bewildering portents”, the situation changed to one in which “the perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic.”  Soon, panic gave way to fear.  Even when medical evidence pointed almost irrefutably towards plague, there was a reluctance to acknowledge that, or even to use the word for fear of causing “unnecessary” alarm.  Gradually, some medical personnel began to recognise that “energetic measures were needed.”  It was understood by some of them that the deceased rats had emitted on Oran “tens of thousands of fleas which will spread the infection in geometrical progression unless it is checked in time.”  But even then the authorities hesitated to take decisive action.  Meanwhile, deaths began to mount. 

About that time, the narrator tells us, the weather appeared set fair: “There was a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning … all seemed well with the world.  And yet within four days the fever had made four startling strides: sixteen deaths, twenty-four, twenty-eight, and thirty-two.  On the fourth day the opening of the auxiliary hospital in the premises of an infant school was officially announced.  The local population, who so far had made a point of masking their anxiety by facetious comments, now seemed tongue-tied and went their way with gloomy faces.”  Only then did the authorities begin “tightening up the new regulations.”  The next day serum was flown in.  There was enough for immediate purposes, but insufficient quantities to cope with a spread of the disease.  A request was made for additional supplies, to which the response was that “the emergency reserve stock was exhausted, but that a new supply was in preparation.”

But for the rats and the fleas, the parallels between the situation in Oran during the early days of the eponymous plague and the situation confronting the world – on an infinitely larger scale – today are manifestly obvious.  As such, it is not surprising that, in recent days, some attention has been drawn to the scary similarities between Camus’s The Plague and the world’s present predicament (see e.g. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-the-hope-at-the-heart-of-albert-camuss-plague-novel-la-peste/ and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/28/albert-camus-novel-the-plague-la-peste-pestilence-fiction-coronavirus-lockdown).

But even the half-attentive reader of The Plague soon comes to understand that the book is not really – or not primarily – concerned with actual plague or, indeed, with any sort of public health emergency.  The plague described in the book, it transpires, is a symbol for something else equally, if not more, menacing.   What is more, and perhaps more frightening, is that one of Dr Rieux’s staunch associates in the campaign against the disease, the enigmatic Jean Tarrou, eventually says: “I have realized that we all have plague … each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”  And so the reader is compelled to wonder about the true nature of the pervasive “plague”.

We know today, thanks to many literary analyses of The Plague, that the disease described in the novel is probably, among other things, a metaphorical reference to the scourge of Nazism that had infected Europe in the 1930s and that ultimately led to World War II.  The quarantine imposed on the city of Oran is probably an allusion to the Nazi occupation of large parts of Europe during WWII.  And the “sanitary squads” organised by Dr Rieux and his volunteer assistants to fight the plague probably allude to the partisan resistance movements that struck back at the seemingly overwhelming force of Nazism.  Camus (who was to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957) himself participated in the French Resistance, and became editor of the clandestine newspaper Combat, whose contributors included Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux.

As now we wait for the coronavirus to unleash its full devastation, and as we enter the period of “lockdown”, we could do worse than re-read The Plague, which, at a superficial level, is an eerie account of the COVID-19 crisis avant la lettre.  In an amazingly imaginative and prescient manner, Camus holds up a mirror in which we recognise many elements of our own present predicament.  Or perhaps Camus was not quite clairvoyant because – and this is one point The Plague sets out to make – every outbreak of plague (or of “plague”) is essentially the same and, so, a predictable continuation of its predecessors.  Moreover the plague (or “plague”) bacillus “never dies or disappears for good; … it can lie dormant for years and years.” 

So what is the “plague” that, according to Tarrou (or Camus) afflicts us all, even if we don’t show outward symptoms of illness?  Who are the “rats”?  And who the “fleas”?  Reading and reflecting on The Plague, especially at this juncture in the history of the world, should give us pause. 

(3 April 2020)

II

Yesterday (or perhaps the day before) was the 16th of April – the day on which the chronicle narrated in The Plague commences.  It was the day on which Dr Rieux, as he emerged from his surgery, stepped on “something soft”: a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing.  But that is all coincidence.

After C-19 had wreaked its initial havoc in China, and had begun to reveal its destructive force in Italy, Spain and France, other countries belatedly and reluctantly began to impose lockdown arrangements of various hues towards the end of March.  At the time, most of us assumed that the lockdown would endure only for the initial stipulated period and that, after that, we would return to our “normal” lives.  Of course, we have now been disabused of that misapprehension.  Not only will the lockdown (such as it is) endure for longer than initially anticipated; even once the extended period has elapsed, the post-lockdown period will be different from our previous “normal” lives in many ways. 

Not only is it likely that we will have to endure further periods of lockdown of one or another degree of severity; even outside lockdown periods, life will (and arguably should) be altered in substantial ways.  Indeed, one wonders how “normal” pre-lockdown life actually was.  The probability, however, is that most people will happily, and without much ado or thought, return to that pre-pestilential “normality”.  And that will only go to demonstrate the irrefutable truth of Tarrou’s view that “we all have plague.”  The contagion will not have been cured by the expedient of a brief lockdown.  And, as we will inevitably see (if we were to open our eyes), the rats and their fleas will not have been exterminated.  Quite the contrary: like vultures they are already salivating at the prospect of scavenging among the debris for remnants that they might be able to turn to good account.  And I am not talking only about the despicable hoodlums who have opportunistically exploited the crisis to vandalise, poach, pillage and rape.

Early in Camus’ parable, set in the coastal town of Oran in the French colonial province of Algeria, Dr Rieux is visited at his surgery by Raymond Rambert, a journalist from a leading Parisian daily newspaper.  But Rambert is not seeking medical treatment.  He is not ill (or if he is ill – or “ill” – he is blissfully unaware of it).  Rambert is looking for information.  He has been commissioned to write a report on the living conditions of the Arab population, and especially on sanitary conditions prevailing in the Arab quarters of Oran.  (It is one of the curiosities of The Plague that, beyond this, little is said about the indigenous population of Oran.  Does this betray a hopelessly Eurocentric perspective on the part of Camus, who, although born in Algeria and raised in Algiers, was the son of a third-generation pied-noir French father and a mother of Spanish descent?) 

Dr Rieux, stating that these conditions were not good, asked whether Rambert’s editors would allow him to tell the truth and publish an unqualified condemnation of the prevailing state of affairs.  Rambert said that he would not be allowed to go as far as that.  To this Rieux replied by saying that, in that event, he would decline to provide Rambert with information because he had no use for statements that do not divulge the whole truth: he had resolved to have no truck with compromises with the truth.  In parting, Rieux suggested to Rambert that he might want to write something about the extraordinary number of dead rats found in Oran.

Indeed, by 18 April the proliferation of dead rats had caused the inhabitants of Oran to begin to show “signs of uneasiness”.  This prompted the municipal authorities to convene a meeting to discuss the situation.  However, they took little action beyond directing the sanitary service to collect the dead rats at dawn every morning and to have them incinerated.  But the situation continued to worsen, with increasing numbers of dead vermin being found in the streets on subsequent mornings.  On 25 April, the information bureau announced that in excess of 6,000 rats had been collected and burnt the previous day.  This statistic unsettled public nerves; people who had hitherto merely grumbled “now realized that this strange phenomenon, whose scope could not be measured and whose origins escaped detection, had something vaguely menacing about it.” 

When the number of deceased rodents increased to 8,000 on 28 April, “a wave of something like panic swept the town.”  Now the authorities were accused of slackness, and people who owned out-of-town holiday homes considered decamping there.  Soon a few patients afflicted by a strange disease, not readily diagnosed by medical practitioners, fell ill.  On 30 April a beautiful spring day, with blue skies and a warm, gentle breeze, gave rise to a new sense of optimism among the townsfolk.  But that same day the mysterious illness claimed its first fatality.

Now, we read, the bewildering portents and the general perplexity of earlier days were superseded by panic.  “Reviewing that first phase in the light of subsequent events, our townsfolk realized that they had never dreamt it possible that our little town should be chosen out for the scene of such grotesque happenings as the wholesale death of rats in broad daylight or the decease of door-porters through exotic maladies.  In this respect they were wrong, and their views obviously called for revision.” 

Even when it had become clear to some medical specialists that the mysterious disease had all the hallmarks of plague, the government continue to shilly-shally, reluctant to give the disease a name because of a desire “not to alarm the public”.  One of the specialists cautioned against acting “as if there were no likelihood that half the population wouldn’t be wiped out; for then it would be.”  Nevertheless, the initial measures taken by the authorities gave little indication that they were “facing the situation squarely”.  Citizens were “advised to practise extreme cleanliness.”

Of course, we were quite naïve in thinking, three or four weeks ago, that we would be healed from the physical symptoms of the C-19 disease merely by adopting a regime of enhanced cleanliness and by a relatively short period of lockdown.  In this respect we were wrong, and our views soon required revision. 

Over the last few weeks we have read frequently that the C-19 pandemic will result in a paradigm shift and that we will never revert to the pre-lockdown state of “normality”.  Much has been written about how we will never return to our old way of life or to the perceptions that informed that way of life.  But alas: already it is quite clear that if we had misconceptions that a brief lockdown, like a fleeting visit to a spa or a sanatorium to “take the waters”, would begin to cure us of the figurative disease afflicting us, we were mistaken.    

(17 April 2020)

III

Initially (Camus tells us in La Peste), Oran’s municipal authorities ascribed little significance to the profusion of rodent corpses strewn in the city streets.  Soon patients began to present with unusual ailments.  Some died of a mysterious illness.  But in those early days very few people connected the dots and appreciated the potential implications of these seemingly unconnected circumstances.  Indeed, very few people even discerned the existence of dots.  Soon, though, it became apparent to those who were prepared to open their eyes that the city was being confronted by a potential emergency of substantial proportions.  Even then, though, few understood the nature and extent of the potential crisis.  Medical doctors waited cautiously for the results of post-mortem examinations before they were prepared to start speculating – let alone draw conclusions – about the “strange malady” that had made its appearance.     

            In these circumstances, an elderly medical practitioner, Dr Castel, was surprisingly outspoken: “I don’t need any post-mortems.  I was in China for a good part of my career,” he said, “and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago.  Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion.  The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all.  And then, as one of my colleagues said, ‘It’s unthinkable.  Everyone knows it’s ceased to appear in Western Europe.’  Yes, everyone knew that – except the dead men.”  Then, turning to Dr Rieux, he said: “Come now, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is.”  (One need hardly draw attention parenthetically to Camus’ references to China and Paris.)

            Looking out of the window of his surgery, Dr Rieux pondered the imponderable.  Though blue, the sky had a dull sheen.  “Yes, Castel,” he replied.  “It’s hardly credible.  But everything points to its being plague.”

            The next day, Dr Castel pointed out to Dr Rieux that there was not a gramme of anti-plague serum in the entire district of Oran, and that it would have to be flown in from Paris.  Several days later, they were still waiting for the serum to arrive.  When health practitioners made enquiries with the authorities about the delays in the delivery of serum, they were told: “It’ll come this week.” 

            Now, when we know that the serum will not be arriving this week, or even next week or the week after, it has been tragi-comic to observe the stunts of some pseudo-leaders in advocating the use of anti-malarial drugs as a supposed defence against, or cure for, C-19.  One might be forgiven for wondering whether they have bought vast tranches of shares in the pharmaceutical companies dispensing these drugs.

            Ironies abound. 

Populations stricken by coronafatigue accuse governments of over-reacting by maintaining severe restrictions on civil liberties.  They clamour for the lifting of lockdown restrictions.  Many people take the law (and their lives) into their own hands, disregarding the restrictions imposed for their benefit.  But when it is announced that schools will gradually begin to reopen on a limited scale, many people indignantly proclaim their objections – ostensibly out of concern for the well-being of the children (who, scientific opinion seems to concur, are not materially at risk).  Some teachers and their trade unions, protest against the reopening of schools, despite the fact that initially only two out of thirteen grades will be returning to class.  Cui bono?

The lockdown gradually disintegrates organically.  Government is powerless, or politically unwilling, to enforce it properly.  Even in circumstances when no civilians should be out and about, and a curfew is supposedly in place, the thousands of policemen and soldiers supposedly mandated to enforce the law cannot prevent the looting and vandalisation of schools.

Many of those who favour the lifting of the lockdown point out that infection rates and mortality figures have not reached the levels initially feared.  Isn’t that precisely (or at least partly) because there has been a lockdown?  But perhaps these advocates of a removal of lockdown restrictions can be forgiven their lack of appreciation of the severity of the situation.  Their freely-offered expert opinions are obviously informed (or misinformed) by the paucity of reliable and up-to-date statistics.  Does anybody seriously believe that some provinces have recorded very few infections and hardly any deaths? 

Following a prolonged reticence by government to take citizens into their confidence by releasing meaningful information, government has finally produced some information that is actually informative.  See https://www.news24.com/Analysis/analysis-inside-sas-frightening-covid-19-projections-and-why-transparency-is-important-20200520.  These sobering projections indicate that – despite the relative success of the lockdown – we may well see 40,000 fatalities by the end of the year.  That would be enough people to fill a large sports stadium.  (It is not many more than the number of people who succumbed to Ebola in West Africa in 2014-’16 – but, inexplicably, that passed largely unnoticed.)  So, even if there is no immediate likelihood that half the population will be wiped out, there is certainly no scope for complacency.

Unsurprisingly, recent times have seen a resurgence of interest in The Plague.  See, for example, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/15/graciliano-ramos-and-the-plague/.  Unfortunately, there has been little analysis of the underlying message sought to be conveyed by Camus, or of what it means for us in C-19 times.  One article that points in the right direction is Steve Coll’s commentary published in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/camus-and-the-political-tests-of-a-pandemic.  Particularly powerful is his statement that “Camus was less interested in the evolving science of epidemic response than in our capacity as individuals to face the truth, endure, and contribute to success under extreme conditions.”  But even that doesn’t quite capture the crux of The Plague.  And we are still left to explore the true meaning of Tarrou’s statement that “we all have plague … each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it.” 

Understandably, there has been a deluge of C-19 media coverage in recent months.  Indeed, it almost seems as though there is no other news.  Among the many worrying and depressing reports there have been a few heartening and uplifting stories – for example, of people who have done their duty in difficult conditions, and of people who have courageously and imaginatively gone above and beyond the call of duty.  There have also been a few stories about the impact of the lockdown on the natural world.  For example, there has been a dramatic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.  In some cities, people have seen blue skies for the first time in years.  Sadly, though, these reduced emissions will be only temporary and will have no noticeable impact on global warming: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/19/lockdowns-trigger-dramatic-fall-global-carbon-emissions.

We have also seen reports (not all apocryphal) of animals observed in areas where they have not been seen for decades: goats roaming freely in village streets, deer grazing on the lawns of housing estates, and lions relaxing on desolate golf club greens.  Typically, these reports have come beautifully illustrated with colourful photographs: https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2020/apr/22/animals-roaming-streets-coronavirus-lockdown-photos and https://www.newscientist.com/article/2244359-which-animals-are-benefitting-from-coronavirus-lockdowns/.

By contrast, there has been very little publicity about the mass culling of animals that had been destined to be slaughtered for human consumption.  One recent article drew attention to that fact that tens of millions of farm animals are being killed by the most horrific methods.  Although the euphemism “euthanised” is used to describe these killings, the reality is that unimaginable numbers of animals are being killed in sickeningly cruel ways: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/19/millions-of-us-farm-animals-to-be-culled-by-suffocation-drowning-and-shooting-coronavirus.  But no photographs are provided to illustrate any of this.  One would have expected that, in a world that regards itself as vaguely “civilised”, there would be an explosion of popular outrage about this brutal treatment of animals.  Sadly, this has largely been swept under the carpet and, no doubt, will soon be forgotten.

When we begin, even only slightly, to conceptualise the extent of the callous cruelty that is inflicted on the animal kingdom, we cannot avoid asking questions about the extent to which we have allowed ourselves to become desensitised and dehumanised.  The nauseating irony is particularly striking when we consider that the first reading for the Easter Vigil (long since lost in the mists of C-19 history) included the following: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, with its seed-bearing fruit; to you it shall be for meat” (Genesis 1: 29).  It seems most of us are incurably infected by an acute lack of basic compassion.  Perhaps if we reflect on this for a moment we will begin to glimpse what Tarrou meant when he said that we all have the plague within us.

(24 May 2020)

To be continued

 [Quotations from The Plague are taken from the Penguin translation by Stuart Gilbert]

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