“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey 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, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.” So wrote Albert Camus in La Peste (The Plague) in 1947.
La Peste reads more as a prophecy than an indictment. Initially intended as an allegory for the French population’s indifference to the rising threat of fascism in Germany, this novel by the French-Algerian writer provides a useful and at times eerie insight into the nature of pandemics.
Starting in December 2019, with a handful of cases in a yet unknown province of China, the Covid-19 crisis recaptures La Peste’s relevance. A reading of Camus’ fictional account provides a lens through which our response to pandemics can be analysed and the fundamental human condition in crisis revealed.
Camus’ novel follows the archetypal development of infectious outbreaks as outlined by Charles Rosenberg, who lectures on global health and medicine at Harvard, in his article What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective in Daedalus academic journal. Pandemics can be seen as evolving through three stages. The first stage, which Rosenberg refers to as progressive revelation, mimics the early days of Covid-19 in a manner that is testament to Camus’ erudite observation of the human condition. Initially, people are slow to recognise and accept the existence of a potential pandemic. This characteristically lethargic early response owes somewhat to the trivial origins of pandemics. The pattern was evidenced by the fact that, even as reports from China of a novel virus in 2019 began to make headline news, denial of the severity of the situation prevailed. Affirmations that worry was unwarranted and misplaced were based partly on ignorance and partly in a deliberate repudiation of a potential crisis.
Pandemics represent a threat to interests: businesses and markets fear a downturn in trade, governments fear unplanned budget adjustments, emergency measures and the disruption of agendas. And the threat for you and me, routine-driven comfort-seeking animals that we are, is a disruption to our everyday lives. This represents a far more intuitive reason for the delay of a response than mere ignorance. And so the situation simmers until accumulating deaths and thwarted efforts at prevention result in an unwilling recognition that the problem has arrived.
The arrival of the pandemic into public consciousness raises more questions than answers. It is only once a pandemic has been acknowledged that the quest to attribute meaning begins. This move into the second stage of Rosenberg’s model, managing randomness, underscores the necessity of people to seek rational explanations for pandemics in terms that offer a modicum of control (thereby serving to minimise our own naked vulnerability.) Consolatory claims that Covid-19 only affected older people, the frail and those with co-morbid conditions comforted people that the threat was a hypothetical and distant reality, at least to them. But as young people became critically ill and the true scope of the crisis started filtering through, the scant indifference of the virus to class, age, borders and socioeconomic status ushered in a jarring return to reality. And still, the quest for some meaning continues, exemplified by the countless optimistic proclamations about the ecological benefits, restructuring of the global economy and general improvement in human relations that are supposed to serve as silver linings on the cloud that it is Covid-19. And it is ultimately this search for meaning in the fundamentally meaningless and arbitrary nature of phenomena such as Covid-19 that Camus referred to as the absurd and is best surmised in his words, “But what does that mean, ‘plague’? Just life, no more than that.”
A defining characteristic of outbreaks is their ability to generate the impetus required for a collective call to action, a stage Rosenberg dubbed negotiating public response. In contrast, diseases that afflict far greater numbers worldwide such as tuberculosis or malaria do not elicit the same moral and political pressure for decisive intervention, a fact that highlights the socially-constructed and theatrical nature of pandemics such as Covid-19, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). It is what separates these outbreaks from the millions of individuals who die from other communicable diseases every day.
In response to the pressure, governments rush to save face in the court of public opinion where failure to act constitutes an action. But even the implementations by governments may serve to fuel the sensational nature of such disruptions. Measures to curb the spread of the virus constitute in and of themselves a dramaturgic response. For in addition to the benefit of minimising dissemination of the disease, the imposition of a quarantine or lockdown visually reinforces the solidarity of a community action. And it is in these collective rituals that we find the promise of control in a situation that lies beyond the control of anyone person or state. People seek solace in a time where our natural yearning for companionship is met with necessary calls for isolation.
In a sense of resignation, Camus remarked that plagues and war shared properties of ubiquity and surprise in human history. I am an optimist, but I recommend Camus’ La Peste as an exercise in practicing the existentialist lessons we must learn if we are to improve. Covid-19 is not the first pandemic on a global scale and yet public health interventions have largely been retrospective with regard to pandemics. Judgments of whether we did enough or implemented timeous interventions form part of the inevitable epilogue but never serve for much more.
So, in dealing with the crisis we currently face, we are provided once more with the opportunity to genuinely learn lessons and be proactive for the next inevitable outbreak. We have a chance to be better and, more importantly, an obligation to ensure that we do. The closing lines of La Peste provides us with a final warning from Camus, a reminder that eternal vigilance is the price of security:
“Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that 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.”
Cameron Joseph is a medical student at the University of Cape Town