What re-reading Camus’s The Plague can tell us about media, literature and social memory in times of crisis

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We live in a time of ever-present pandemic threat. Consider the global outbreaks of the past two decades alone: SARS, Avian Flu, H1N1, MERS-CoV, Ebola, Zika, and, now, COVID-19. What does it feel like to live in an era of pandemic prevalence? How do we make sense of the risks pandemics pose to public health, civil society and the economy? How do societies learn from these experiences? Where are the records of these lessons? 

Government documents, memoirs, and population health data are common sources of information that scholars, archivists, journalists and other chroniclers of disease use to understand these events and shape our memories about them. Michael Schudson, media historian and professor of journalism at Columbia University, argues that memory is a collective process and that journalism, in particular, has always been “our most public, widely distributed, easily accessible and thinly stretched membrane of social memory.” This is of course true, and no doubt the current COVID-19 outbreak will generate numerous graduate theses on media storytelling that will serve as important archives for future learning and reference. In addition to journalism, we must also look to literature as an important source of public memory. Novels and essays, both historical and contemporary, provide a tool for living and can help us navigate the very real and rational anxieties we experience in times of crisis. 

There are many excellent literary accounts of illness and disease that can mediate our experience of the present pandemic threat: José Saramago’s Blindness, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven , Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M, among countless others, are examples of brilliant pandemic fiction that should be on everyone’s self-isolation reading lists. However, above all, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague — in addition to providing  some much needed intellectual nourishment and distraction from our gloomy media feeds — affords important lessons to help us navigate the COVID-19 crisis we now face.  

The Plague is set on the Algerian coast, in the city of Oran. The story follows Dr. Bernard Rieux, a physician who becomes alarmed when he begins to notice increasing numbers of rats dying in the streets — first by the tens, then the hundreds and, eventually, by the thousands. “From the outskirts to the centre of the town, wherever Dr. Rieux happened to go and wherever our fellow citizens gathered,” Camus wrote, “piles of rats were waiting, in the dustbins or in the long rows in gutters.”

As the numbers of dead rodents increase, the city becomes gripped in panic. Oran’s residents are slow at first to recognize the gravity of the danger they face, but once aware of the threat on their doorsteps must decide what measures to take if they’re to survive. Sound familiar?

Soon, the mysterious illness begins to spread to humans — small numbers at first and, eventually, like the rats before them, by the hundreds every day. Rieux’s colleague, Dr. Castel, is certain that the illness is bubonic plague. Together they initially confront a cold state of indifference on the part of the authorities, and then a denial that a crisis is even at hand. Nobody believes that the plague has possibly returned, let alone to a modern city like Oran. Only after it begins to ravage the population do the authorities finally enact strict containment measures, closing the outer gates and forcing the city’s residents into quarantine. 

The Plague is an allegory for life in Nazi-occupied France. The sealing of the city gates was a metaphor for the borders imposed by the Germans during the Second World War. The ethical choices facing the authorities and residents of Oran — to resist or acquiesce — were precisely the dilemmas that Europe’s citizens, and the French in particular, faced during Germany’s Military Administration. Camus provides us with a dramatic account of how humans confront all their plagues, both microbial and political: how the weak succumb to despair; how the cowardly fall to evasion; how the religious turn to prayer; and how swindlers seek to exploit personal advantage in the interregnum of uncertainty. Crucially, though, he shows us how others embrace humanity in the face of these absurd conditions.

The Plague is a striking piece of literature. Beautifully written, philosophically rich, and compelling in narrative form, it established Camus’ reputation as a central intellectual figure in the postwar era. Published when he was just 33, it was immediately celebrated as a major literary achievement, vaulted him into Left Bank superstardom and cemented his reputation as one of the greatest essayists of the 20th century (a decade after its publication he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature). Between June and September 1947 alone, more than 100,000 copies of the book were sold, and by 1980 The Plague had been translated into 11 languages with sales in the millions. John L. Brown, a correspondent with the New York Times Sunday edition, lauded the book’s moral and intellectual clarity, its tight prose and commitment to bringing into focus the central problems of human behaviour. A reviewer in TIME magazine called The Plague “one of the few genuinely important works of art to come out of Europe since the war’s end.”

In a time of resurgent authoritarianism, literature can serve as a moral compass that directs our understanding of what it means to be human in the face of imminent danger and risk, and The Plague serves as one of our most important guides. Yet, beyond helping us to make sense of the very real threats of authoritarian populism, the book is also relevant for how it captures the essence of what my Carleton colleagues Neil Gerlach and Sheryl Hamilton describe as pandemic culture, i.e., the collective experience of living in a society where we are continually reminded of our shared vulnerability to the threats of disease. 

We can approach The Plague as more than allegory, and more than metaphor — it can be read literally as well, and we should engage in what Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus describe as a surface reading of the novel. This approach requires that we look at the text, not through it, by taking its characters, settings, and plot lines at face value, rather than seeking to locate the absences, gaps and forces in the text to signify its latent claims. In this way The Plague can serve as a transcript for making sense of how we respond to the threat of disease not just as a biomedical phenomenon but as a cultural force as well. 

Camus’ tale of a city besieged by plague does more than simply warn us against a new era of authoritarianism, although it does this very well. It also functions to help us make sense of contemporary disease threats and imparts important lessons we should take seriously. 

First, it reminds us that the authorities are almost always slow to react, lean on the limits of bureaucracy or point fingers elsewhere to justify inaction, and, even if they do act, nevertheless throttle information from entering the public domain. 

Dr. Richard is the chairman of the medical association in Camus’ Oran and plays a key role in the first part of the book, when there is still no definitive proof that it is plague that is responsible for the deaths of the rats and increasing numbers of citizens. When Rieux and Castel suggest to Richard that the illness is almost certainly plague, his first response is disbelief, preferring instead to adopt a “wait and see” attitude for fear of inciting public panic: “It’s true that people are starting to worry,” Richard explains, “but gossip exaggerates everything.” 

Richard emphasized that they should not rush to judgment and that they would at least have to wait for the statistical result of the series of analyses, which had begun a few days earlier.

Second, it illustrates how excessive amounts of media attention and the search for blameworthy agents are as central to the narrative arc of these events in the real world as they are in fiction. 

People around town are talking a great deal about the business of the rats. The newspaper has taken it up. The local news pages, usually very diverse, are now entirely occupied by a campaign against the town authorities: “Are our town dignitaries aware of the danger that may arise from the rotting corpses of these rodents?”

At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, news coverage has been extensive and fear-inducing, argues Cardiff University journalism professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen. Of the more than 9,000 international stories she examined in that early phase, more than 11 per cent of them mentioned terms like “fear” and “afraid.” Several used the term “killer virus” and suggested the potential for public panic. Part of what makes the public panic thesis so rhetorically potent is the racialized undertones of the media coverage. Indeed, as others have argued, much of this discourse has been predictably, and depressingly, shaped by “red-baiting” and “yellow peril” framing, and this has had real world implications for people of Asian descent as instances of racialized violence continue to rise. 

Third, it reminds us that fear of public panic is always at the heart of outbreak narratives and risk management, and that at some point in a pandemic the question of trust between the public and authorities will be put to a test.

Some of our fellow-citizens, driven out of their minds by the heat and the idea of plague, had resorted to violence and tried to evade the guards on the barriers in order to flee the town.

Fourth, it shows us that outbreaks, as both biomedical events and cultural phenomena, carry with them a real risk of fatigue

Rieux and his friends now discovered how tired they were. Indeed, the members of the health teams could no longer overcome their tiredness. Dr. Rieux noticed it when he observed the steady growth of a strange indifference in himself and in his friends. For example, men who up to now had shown such a lively interest in any news about the plague, no longer bothered with it.

For physicians, epidemiologists, nurses and others who occupy the front lines of responding to high risk public health emergencies, the effects can be exhausting — both physically and emotionally. For the rest of us, the steady stream of stories about death, illness, misery and disease test the extent of our emotional resilience and compassion.

Finally, it reminds us that in the face of almost overwhelming odds, citizens and health professionals must and often do co-operate, placing the good of others ahead of their own welfare and desires for personal happiness. 

‘Doctor,’ Rambert said. ‘I’m not leaving and I want to stay with you.’…‘What about her?’ he said in a dull voice. Rambert said that he had thought it over again. He still believed what he believed, but if he went away he would feel ashamed… ‘I always thought that I was a stranger in this town and had nothing to do with you. But now that I have seen what I have seen, I know that I come from here, whether I like it or not. This business concerns all of us.

As death and despair loom, Camus challenges us to embrace our humanity by connecting with others and supporting them in times of need. Rather than turn to nihilism or hopelessness, allowing “strange indifference” to take hold, the book’s main characters shoulder responsibility for reclaiming civility and restoring an ethic of care. Humanity will prevail only if we have the strength of character and moral conscience to treat others with compassion and benevolence:

When you see the suffering and pain that plague brings, you have to be mad, blind, or a coward to resign yourself to it. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.

Media depictions of the COVID-19 outbreak emphasize in vivid detail how health crises trigger some of our darker human instincts, from panic-buying to the willful spreading of disinformation. Yet, media coverage also emphasizes the human traits of decency, kindness and a will to form and preserve community. Like the members of Oran’s anti-plague resistance, citizens around the world have shown the possibilities of expressing concern and love for others in periods of intense emotional difficulty.  Human beings serve neighbours and strangers alike because it’s the right thing to do; they do so, as Camus urged, because their lives have intrinsic value and meaning.  

In the final pages of the book, Dr. Rieux reflects on all that he’s lost and what he’s gained.  Ultimately, he argues, through the experience of collective trauma we gain a better understanding of ourselves, and we gain knowledge to carry forth in the face of future threats. 

[W]hat had he, Rieux, won? All he had gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known friendship and to remember it, to have known affection and to have one day to remember it. All that a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory… 

As the international community continues to grapple with the continually evolving threat of COVID-19, and as other outbreaks of disease wreak havoc in more regionally contained areas with the potential to go global (for example, Ebola and African Swine Fever), we would do well to heed Camus’ lessons, both literal and metaphorical. Literature provides a powerful tool for living in the present and affords us with important insights to guide how we think and act in the world. It gives us far more than just opportunities for emotional escape and intellectual sustenance. It may well be the moral compass we need to help us navigate the uncertain terrain that lies ahead.

Josh Greenberg, PhD, is a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University