Reading Pandemics

Taking a Page About Community and Responsibility from Albert Camus' 'The Plague'

Initially, the city of Oran does not take care of its most vulnerable populations in Camus' The Plague, and as a result, the city suffers for it. This parallels today's COVID-19 world.

The Plague
Albert Camus

Vintage International

May 1991


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?

Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

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?

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Vintage International. 1991.

Corchado, Alfredo. " A Former Farmworker on American Hypocrisy". The New York Times. 6 May 2020.

Kendi, Ibram X. " Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus". The Atlantic. 14 April 2020.

Kendi, Ibram X. " We're Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders' Republic". The Atlantic. 4 May 2020.

Serwer, Adam. " The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying". The Atlantic. 8 May 2020.





Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.


Alastair Sim: A Very English Character Actor Genius

Alastair Sim belongs to those character actors sometimes accused of "hamming it up" because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can't help standing out.


Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers Head "Underwater" in New Video (premiere)

Celebrating the first anniversary of Paper Castle, folksy poppers Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers release an uplifting new video for opening track, "Underwater".


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's New LP Is Lacking in Songcraft but Rich in Texture

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven listen. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style.


Buzzcocks' 1996 Album 'All Set' Sees the Veteran Band Stretching Out and Gaining Confidence

After the straightforward and workmanlike Trade Test Transmissions, Buzzcocks continued to hone their fresh identity in the studio, as exhibited on the All Set reissue contained on the new box-set Sell You Everything.


Patrick Madden's 'Disparates' Makes Sense in These Crazy Times

There's no social distancing with Patrick Madden's hilarious Disparates. While reading these essays, you'll feel like he's in the room with you.


Perfume Genius Purges Himself and It's Contagious

You need to care so much about your art to pack this much meaning into not only the words, but the tones that adorn and deliver them. Perfume Genius cares so much it hurts on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Confinement and Escape: Emma Donoghue and E.L. Doctorow in Our Time of Self-Isolation

Emma Donoghue's Room and E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley define and confront life within limited space.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.