Saturday, February 8, 2020


Gallimard Press, 1951 edition of "La Peste"


The city is on lockdown. Transportation grinds to a halt. Shops are shuttered, rumors fly, early reports play down severity of epidemic. Doctors toil round the clock, families are torn apart, the death toll mounts and no ready cure is in sight.

Sounds chillingly familiar, doesn’t it? Albert Camus wrote of these things in harrowing detail in The Plague. (La Peste, 1947). 

The novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran, but one could be forgiven for thinking it Wuhan. Camus artfully describes a city under lock with hardened realism, heartfelt sympathy and philosophical heft.

It doesn’t make for easy reading, but it is essential reading, especially when a modern-day epidemic of unknown proportions is raging across the Chinese heartland and elsewhere. It’s a tribute to the author’s wry humanism that many of the uncomfortable truths, human frailties and quiet heroism he depicts are the stuff of news headlines today.

If a hero emerges, it’s Doctor Rieux, who works around the clock and seeks to console others despite grim conditions. His dedication to his profession against difficult odds will remind modern readers of the already legendary Li Wenliang, who lost his life in Wuhan trying save others from the much-feared contagion.

"The whole town was running a temperature” is how Camus describes Oran, but it is apt metaphor for any one of the number of cities now on lockdown.

 “Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others,” Camus says, tackling the tendency to blame the victims.  “They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views?”

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history,” he adds. “Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

Camus understands that this surprise is often met with denial. As one of the doctors explains, “he knew quite well that it was plague and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues' reluctance to face the facts and, if it would ease their minds, he was quite prepared to say it wasn't plague.”

"The newspapers and the authorities are playing ball with the plague,” complains one of the characters when statistics are subject to manipulation.

Then there is the economy to consider. “…For a long while to come travelers would give the town a wide berth. This epidemic spelt the ruin of the tourist trade.”

Even after the “rumors” are verified, the doctors are on guard: “It's not a question of painting too black a picture. It's a question of taking precautions."

Prodded by a rising death toll, the state takes over.

“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

As Camus tells it, intervention can only do so much: “As for the ‘specially equipped’ wards, he knew what they amounted to: two outbuildings from which the other patients had been hastily evacuated, whose windows had been hermetically sealed, and round which a sanitary cordon had been set.”

The main characters in the novel bide the “intolerable leisure” enforced by quarantine to muse about their fate, describing how they felt to be “in exile,” still indignant at the “unmerited distress” that had befallen them. “They had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.”

"But I don't belong here," the journalist cries, demanding special treatment.
He is reprimanded. "Unfortunately, from now on you'll belong here, like everybody else."

Realizing he is locked in, the journalist learns to savor “that bitter sense of freedom which comes of total deprivation.”

Mandatory quarantines are followed by “batterings on the door, action by the police, and later armed force; the patient was taken by storm.”

“Now and again a gunshot was heard; the special brigade recently detailed to destroy cats and dogs, as possible carriers of infection, was at work.”

Although pets are not considered a risk with the novel coronavirus, draconian campaigns against “pests” have convulsed China before.

The world-weary but humane Doctor Rieux, who seems to stand in for the author, urges his agitated neighbors to keep calm and carry on.
“There's one thing I must tell you: there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is—common decency…I don't know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job." 

"Heroes don't come falling from the sky, there are just the exertions of ordinary people" A wall in Hong Kong, February 2020