“Ah! If only it had been an earthquake! A good shake and that’s it… One counts the dead, one counts the living and the whole thing’s over and done with. But this rotten bastard of a disease! Even those who don’t have it, carry it in their hearts.”

It started when the rats began to die. Inside homes and on the streets, the nondescript town of Oran witnessed the furry creatures writhing and convulsing as they heaved their final breath. Initially, the numbers were small; enough only to give the townspeople pause – after all, notwithstanding this anomaly, theirs was a predictable town.

But the rats did not stop dying. Within a week, the numbers had run into the thousands. The whole town was pockmarked with their little bodies. Anxious, the people demanded the authorities act. Before they could, however, the number of deaths suddenly plummeted. The whole matter ended as suddenly and abruptly as it had begun. Everyone was relieved; things could go back to normal.

It is said that it takes millennia for order to be established; but only a week to usurp it. Days after the last rat had been cleared from the streets, the people began to die.

The Plague is a story about a small town on the coast of Algiers that had never fathomed the idea of facing the plague; yet found themselves battling it. It follows the lives of the townspeople as they struggled to respond to an arbitrary killer in their midst. In detailing the varying responses of the people, Albert Camus attempts to draw a portrait of what it is to be human in trying times.

As the world battles COVID-19, Camus’ writing offers valuable insights into how one may approach the idea of disease. Thinking clearly about the arbitrary killer in our midst may enable us to act better against it.

The garb of normalcy

Pestilence, states the narrator early on in the book, is in fact very common. But we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us.

Denial is a common reaction to disease. Mortal sickness may be anticipated for a lifetime, but when it strikes, one refuses to accept it. The town of Oran was no exception to this state of mind. The people who were dying suffered similar symptoms and causes of death. The word “plague” was at the tip of everyone’s tongues, yet they were afraid of saying the word. As if saying the words will somehow make the threat all-too real.

At the heart of this denial is fear. This is because the idea of normalcy is inimical to disease. Normalcy presumes freedom, and that is precisely what is lacking in times of an epidemic. After all, disease is an abstraction, an “it” that infects and discards without discrimination or schedule – each person is similarly condemned. To truly acknowledge the idea of disease is to abandon the plans and presumptions that have governed one’s life so far. It is to acknowledge that the future and the past don’t exist any longer; all that remains is what lies in the present.

And here lies the strength of disease: it condemns one to live in the present. Without the warm glow of the past or the glittery promise of the future, one is resigned to march to the dull drumbeat of the present, making way from day to day, exhausted but unwilling to succumb. In times like these, one prefers denial because it allows for hope, even though it may be entirely baseless.

To fight disease effectively, then, is to get rid of the various smokescreens that prevent one from acknowledging the severity of the problem. If the threat of disease, despite being felt, is not perceived, it will take its toll. Quarantine measures will not be taken seriously and authorities will fall short of their duties. Reactive measures alone won’t make a change. Fighting an epidemic is a proactive activity, one that cannot afford complacency, much less denial.

An accident differs from disease in that the former occurs without warning, while the latter wears one down with anticipation. Precisely when one is least careful, it strikes. The challenge is to not give it the opportunity. Like Dr Bernard Rieux, a local doctor who spearheaded the campaign against the plague, says, “We should not act as though half the town were not threatened with death, because then it would be.”

A different narrative

“My brethren, a calamity has befallen you,” begins Father Paneloux to the crowded church. “My brethren, you have deserved it.” Once the town was locked down indefinitely, the people of Oran, in their terror, turned up in large numbers for shelter in the arms of their god.

Disease inspires storytelling. When an abstraction sets out to kill, meaning is ascribed to death to give it value. It is an attempt to make sense of what is ultimately senseless.

The Plague is replete with instances of people attempting to make sense of the calamity that has befallen them. They attempt to understand why the plague surfaced in their town, and in no other. They think of their pasts, their actions, their intentions to find cause for a disease that seeks to claim their lives without rhyme or reason. In narrativising death, the people of Oran try to outlive it.

Yet, it is precisely this sort of narrativising that Camus sought to avoid. Especially the narrativising that valorises those like Dr Rieux and Joseph Grand, the frontrunners in the battle against the plague. The idea, according to Camus, was not to worship them; they were simply doing their duty – no more, no less. In fact, it would be ghastly if one, in times like this, refused to do their bit.

Far from drawing trite conclusions about human bravery and nobility, the book suggests that a necessary optimism and indefatigable effort are what really count when humanity is put on trial. History is made in retrospect; going forward, all that matters is to fight the disease. Dr Rieux sums it up when he tells Tarrou, “Other men will make history…All I say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”

By not moralising or lending to pathos, Camus asks us to take a hard look at epidemics for what they are. One never knows when an epidemic may strike, but responding to it is certainly under our control. Valorising the dead or lip service to those in the line of duty does them a disservice; what is required is to hold each and every one of us – especially the authorities – accountable. Others may be inclined to call the idea ridiculous, but I agree with Dr Rieux when he says that the only way to fight the plague is with decency.