The Plague (La Peste, 1948) by Albert Camus eerily mirrors life as we know it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Camus insists that to enter into a pandemic is to enter a collective destiny. It is a time when we should be fortifying our empathy and a time when imagination should be elevated as central to understanding our responsibilities and care for others.
The Plague uncannily echoes our contemporary moment in how government and citizens respond to pandemic. The book is set in the 1940s in the Algerian city of Oran and illustrates a fictional plague. Besides the use of telegrams, and the fact that buboes are symptoms of the disease, you would hardly see any difference between the story and the quarantine life of today.
At first, there is a nonchalant and slightly mocking response by the residents of Oran concerning the spreading disease. The government does not want to warn people or make a big deal about it. The State refuses to take the advice of medical authorities, even though the bubonic plague has hit Oran.
Eventually, people begin to panic. The town is locked down. Food and random supplies run low. People form long lines outside grocery stores. The hospitals fill to capacity so makeshift hospitals are created out of tents and empty stadiums. There are not enough medical workers. Doctors are exhausted and volunteers are desperately needed. The death count grows dramatically every week. Funerals stop and cremations begin—to keep up with so much death. There are even violent attempts by some individuals to flee or reopen the city. All of these responses we have seen in our world shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Plague is narrated by Dr. Rieux, a character who resembles Camus. He is on the frontlines of the pandemic and early on, realizes that “Now, at least, the position was clear, this calamity was everybody’s business” (184, 132). No one has the freedom to walk away and live the way they want to with disregard for what is happening to others. For Dr. Rieux, no matter who you are, the work of the plague concerns you.
Dr. Rieux observes that “week by week the prisoners of plague put up what fight they could. Some even contrived to fancy they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually, it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all” (Camus 167).
This pandemic is bigger than any one individual. What contributes to the gravity of a pandemic is that it affects all communities and that the virus is prevalent, contagious, widespread.
This collective destiny, collective grief, require collective care. But is that our first instinct? In the book, the city officials want to use prisoners for the “heavy work” and those living in poverty are forced to line up for deadly, “essential” jobs. One of the characters fears that people who are forced by officials to interact with the virus is analogous to being given the death penalty.
Initially, the city of Oran does not take care of its most vulnerable populations, and as a result, the city suffers for it. This too parallels our COVID-19 world.
Today, it is disproportionately black and brown workers, women, and working-class people who are fueling the teetering economy by working jobs that expose them more frequently to the virus. They are forced to go to jobs where they interact with others, rather than stay at home in recommended isolation, because they cannot afford to stay home. Undocumented workers harvesting crops, are considered “critical to the food supply chain” by the same people who consider them ‘illegal’ and a burden to this country (Corchado 2020). The jobs that don’t provide a living wage, like grocery stores and fast-food drive-thrus, are now considered “essential”.
All over the America Latinos and Black people make up the majority of the COVID-19 infections and deaths (Kendi 2020). Although they are deemed “essential” workers, it cannot be said the same for their lives.
As the demographics of the virus’ victims began to become public, many concluded that the coronavirus was not as bad as they thought it was going to be. Even as the death toll continues to skyrocket, people complain about the extension of a stay at home order. For many among the dominant, White US culture, the measures put in place to help slow down the virus—wearing masks, social distancing, restricting travel—have become a nuisance and an attack on their “freedoms”. As The Atlantic writer Adam Serwer so poignantly proposes, “Coronavirus was an emergency until Trump found out who was dying” (2020).
Camus laments the lack of compassion. “But what are a hundred million deaths?… And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination” (Camus 38).
Some things are easier to imagine than others. To imagine holding a $20 bill, for example, is easier than imagining a room filled with a billion cash dollars. It’s easier for many to imagine tomorrow’s monotonous quarantine events than to imagine there is a serious pandemic while everyone in their immediate circle may seem to be fine.
To fight the plague, Camus offers, one needs to apply one’s imagination beyond one’s self. That’s what imagination is for, isn’t it?
I often think about imagination in the context of COVID-19. I think about it as a resource for those who feel their dread becoming so unbearable that they prefer to jump into the precariousness of open economies rather than walk the path of human solidarity.
I am emotionally overwhelmed by the amount of death caused by the pandemic. I am emotionally drained worrying about my loved ones, my community, my city. I feel emotionally abused by Trump-headed politicians, “White America” culture, and the prioritization of profit over people.
I am a Latina woman. A working-class immigrant. My identities combined seem to clear any obstacles in my path to contracting COVID-19. Can you, like Camus, imagine?