Reading The Plague in the time of corona

Oliur Sun | Published: 00:00, Apr 05,2020


Albert Camus’s classic novel The Plague tells the story of a plague outbreak that sweeps through Algerian town of Oran, during the French colonial era. During the coronavirus outbreak Oliur Sun reviews the novel 

In 1940, spring had arrived in the French-colonised Algeria’s town of Oran. But it was a spring like no other as soon the ‘nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain. No, all those horrors were not near enough as yet even to ruffle the equanimity of that spring afternoon.

As it is in this spring of 2020 with snow embracing the petals of cherry blossoms in Japan, which not to mention is an unlikely event, or dolphins swimming across the Laboni beach point in Cox’s Bazar (equally unlikely) a quarantined world watches in suffering the rise of an invisible cohabitant that has made itself known as the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Unlike in Albert Camus’s classic The Plague (1947) where plague was neither unknown nor absolutely invisible (poor rodents!) as the protagonist of the story Dr Bernard Rieux recalled in the novel, ‘One thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million death.’ Now the Plague, well serving as a metaphor of fascism, carried a menacing aura both in its manifestation and performance while COVID-19 is one of those sci-fi dystopias ‘just-got-real’ but no less serving as a metaphor of capitalism.

According to the World Health Organisation as of April 2, 2020 about 40,777 deaths have occurred from COVID-19 worldwide. If a sum of 40 thousand among seven billion seems less concerning, as it seemed to many of the world leaders for people are merely numbers to them indeed carrying only a statistical value adding to elections and other economic purposes, in the novel Camus draws a perfect example of Constantinople wrecked by plague with respect to such unmoved movers, ‘Ten thousand dead made about five times the audience in a biggish cinema … You should collect the people at the exits of five picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means. Then at least you could add some familiar faces to the anonymous mass.’

Resembling the time before corona cornered our lives to quarantine, in The Plague the treeless town of Oran always wore a mundane ambience with its people working day and night only to become rich. With no breath to spare for humane trivialities except for business and the related, the habituated normalcy of a routine took over their life. Therefore, the onset of plague seemed merely a disturbance or a fleeting nightmare from which anyone can wake up at any time. What followed was what we are experiencing now — ‘Compulsory declaration of all cases of fever and their isolation were to be strictly enforced. The residences of sick people were to be shut up and disinfected; persons living in the same house were to go into quarantine; burials were to be supervised by the local authorities in a manner which will be described later on.’ (Except that we already know the burial procedures from a viral video)

Though the municipality first hesitated to even name the mysterious fever and decided to wait for an ‘alarming situation’ to carry out mass disinfection operations, Dr Rieux tried his best to convince them into doing what was to be done.

As the story progresses including a few minor characters we come across Jean Tarrou who is introduced by the unnamed narrator as a diarist travelling Oran for unknown reasons, Joseph Grand, an elderly clerk of the city government who is also a neighbour of another silent and secretive character — Cottard, Raymond Rambert, a journalist from Paris supposedly in an orientalist venture visiting Oran to do a story on the Arab quarters and Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who declares the plague as a scourge by god only to die from it later in the novel.
Though the story is based on the Algerian town of Oran, there is no major Arab characters present in the novel as well as no significant female characters except to serve the purpose of the male characters’ ailing wife or mother who occasionally get a special mention here and there for it was ‘understandably’ written by a man with Pieds Noirs parents.

And in a middle-class dominated character list, volunteerism is glamourised and deemed heroic while the working class is merely sympathised. As in the plague-stricken Oran though the sanitisation workers were contracting the disease and dying in numbers, there was no shortage of them for they were driven by poverty and daily labour was their only means to life even if that meant death — ‘From now on, indeed, poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear, especially as, owing to its risks, such work was highly paid.’

The municipality imposing curfews and shooting some people dead, who in a desperate attempt to escape the plague wanted to escape the city defying the armed lockdown, seems to be foreshadowing the unwanted future that awaits us being symptomised by the state-sponsored baton charges and sit-ups.

Though in Oran the plague started to retreat after nine months with the self-sacrificing efforts of volunteers and workers (not the bureaucratic measures by the municipality), being witnesses of the stupidity that dominates us in power and populism we still await for this to pass in hope and desperation counting moments and memories like the citizens of Oran during the early days of the disease. But perhaps ‘we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise’, as Camus postulates.

And in our forbearing this can guide us to a future that will not regress back to the normalcy of the past which resulted in the epidemic of the present for we must create it and remember what in The Plague — ‘those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books’ that just like the undying coronavirus ‘the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good … and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.’

Oliur Sun is a non-philosopher.

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