In an era with rapid economic and technological growths, many of us have never witnessed, or even been able to imagine, events like the epidemics recorded in historical documents. That all changed this year when the horror of the coronavirus shrouded the planet. The situation we are confronting right now resembles the story depicted in The Plague by Albert Camus, which was published in 1947. Camus (1913-1960) was a French existential writer who won the Nobel Prize with this very book, The Plague. The idea of this book emerged in his mind after Paris was occupied by German fascists in 1940. He decided to portray the “terrible age” in which fascism, as a plague, killed millions of people.
The story takes place in the large Algerian city of Oran. In April, a dead rat appears on the street. People do not attach importance to it, but thousands of rats die collectively a few days later. The news reaches Dr. Rieux, and when he notices a cluster of deaths, he becomes certain that this was the lethal plague. However, the newspaper merely mentions the dire situation in a hurry, and the government does not announce it to “not cause public concern.” As a result, the plague spreads throughout the entire city. With the raging epidemic, the government finally shuts down the city and enacts strict sanitary measures. Quarantine panics the public, yet many people prioritized “freedom” and entertainment over the risk of infection. Several months later, citizens finally recognize the plague as a collective concern that requires everyone’s efforts to fight against it. When the epidemic ends, the public quickly returns to its old routine. Still, Dr. Rieux knows that the battle against the plague is never over because the plague can lurk in an invisible corner and come back at any time.
In this book, Camus weaves a series of writing techniques to present the story. He uses simple, understandable language to delineate people’s behaviors and reflect the ongoing social atmosphere, thoroughly transporting the readers into the city of Oran. The introduction of the town Oran includes at the beginning of the book establishes the background of the story and helps readers interpret public responses to the pandemic later in the book. The theme of the book—the plague—initially implies the terror of fascism, but many people also consider it an epitome of the disasters humans experienced, are experiencing, and will experience in the future.
Indeed, the events that happen in this book match almost entirely with our current global health crisis, and it is surprising and scary to see the level of similarity. Some people ran to the cinema and theater to kill time, and some risked their health just for entertainment. Some people found that they could use panic and rumors to make fortunes and thus spread news such as that “drinking pure wine can kill the virus” and that “tablets containing peppermint can prevent infections.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? The world right now feels like a plague that traps people in their homes, where everyone is fighting in vain and boundless despair. However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. Despite the severity of the plague, Dr. Rieux, in the book, persists in healing patients and never relinquishes fighting against the disease when other people in the city are idling and even breaking the rules. There are medical workers like Dr. Rieux in the real world as well. They confront the coronavirus fearlessly and devote themselves to saving people’s lives. They have demonstrated the right attitude towards the pandemic—confront it, and overcome it.
I highly recommend reading this book at this challenging time of the year. It may offer you inspiration regarding ways to live under such dire circumstances.