Of course I had to re-read Albert Camus’s The Plague during quarantine. It is a timely read and I wanted to get a different historical perspective on this pandemic through literature. The novel was first published in 1947 and it is a classic pandemic story. I could see parallels to what is happening today to the progress of the disease in the novel. The story is set in Oran, a coastal city in French Algeria, where the Nobel laureate author was born, experiences an outbreak of bubonic plague. Like today, government officials ignore or take lightly early warning signs and act too late to stop the spread. Slowly as numbers increase restrictions are put in place until the entire city is locked down and no one can leave.
Camus looks at the pandemic through a variety of characters including a priest, a fugitive criminal, a visitor to the city, etc. which allows him to explore religion, relationships, meaning, etc. The main character is a physician Bernard Rieux, who is on the front lines of caring for the sick and is the hero of the story. This plague is much more deadly than what we are experiencing now, but there were ideas to think about. I liked Rieux’s focus on “common decency” and treating others humanely, even in such a horrible crisis. There was another part of the story where city officials were looking for people to dig mass graves and help bury to hundreds of dead. They thought that it would be difficult to fill these positions but “poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear”. That idea is sticking with me as we are looking to when and how our lockdown will end. One of my main takeaways from the book is to reinforce the idea that life if fragile and no matter how important we think we are or our actions, in the end, what matters is treating others humanely and enjoying the ephemeral pleasures life brings.
The book also made me think of what Algeria was like before the Algerian War and independence. It is inconceivable today to have a large population of French people living in Algeria. The country is closed off to most of the world.
I was listening to a podcast describing Korea, Taiwan and Singapore’s mobile phone tracking system to control the spread of the virus. Uzbekistan is doing a low-tech version of this by posting police and military on every street and are requiring pedestrians to register with them as they leave their home and when they come back. (see photo above from my street)