“Everyone knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world,” writes Albert Camus in his novel The Plague (La Peste). “Yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet plagues and wars always take people by surprise.” Albert Camus never made the story appear like a mystery: The Plague, published in 1947, is a metaphor. Behind the rats with their “half-opened lips” that bleed and die in the buildings of Oran, we discern the presence of another epidemic that ravaged Europe: Nazism.
That was a fictional outbreak of plague in the Algerian port-city of Oran in 1948. Yet, repeatedly, the present corona virus epidemic being the latest, we are taken by surprise. Are we still, what Albert Camus described, ‘disbelievers of pestilences’? In his novel, Camus seems to suggest that the best remedy against viral epidemic is democracy. Without whistle-blowers and their protection, free dissemination of information and justice, not only are we barely equipped to fight the evil, we are only helping the cause of the evil. We can not hope that good will ultimately rise from this evil unless finally millions of voices screaming in protest pierce the suffocated atmosphere that a regime has managed to impose, as in Tibet or with the Uyghurs. After all, it was the lie around Chernobyl that had brought down a regime that denied the truth. There lies hope.
In the stunning conclusive parts of The Plague, as the cries of joy rise from the town of Oran, Dr Rieux becomes pensive for he knew what “these jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years….”
Isn’t it one of the best times for going back to Camus’s great novel? If not for anything, at least for the realisation that centuries of pandemic responses have taught us very little? For discovering words of wisdom that still retain the power to wake us up? Take these prophetic words of that visionary novelist as an example: “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away…”