‘’No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat, said Rieux.’’
The Plague (or La Peste in French), a book who returned to a list of best-sellers in recent weeks, is a novel written by the famous writer and philosopher Albert Camus, about an outbreak of a plague that erupted in the city of Oran in Algeria. The protagonist of the book is a stoic, nihilist, and dedicated doctor: Rieux. The Plague is written in a philosophical approach rather than a scientific one. In this novel, Camus; whose philosophy is based on life’s essential absurdity, studies the inevitability of death, misery, and absurdity of life through a fictional pandemic.
To briefly summarize the novel: One day, the rats of Oran start dying on the streets. The people ignore this situation for a while but the plague starts to spread among humans. Those who deny the existence of the disease, primarily try to continue with their daily lives but with the increase in the death rates, the city closes its gates and people are quarantined. Even though the limited number of doctors and hospitals try to do their best against the outbreak, people start to lose their loved ones, one by one. Life starts to get meaningless and suddenly death becomes a part of everyday life. — Sounds familiar?
Though, the similarities between Covid-19 and Oran’s plague do not end here.
The biggest similarity is, of course, ‘quarantine’. In the book, Oran shuts down with a sudden decision which results in a few foreigners getting stuck in this unfamiliar city and citizens getting separated from their acquaintances from outside. The citizens face great pain and emptiness in this hard situation and find it difficult to adapt to their new quarantine life. They start to get lazy, go to restaurants and bars, and wander around, just to kill some time. Camus defines this longing, this desire to escape from time and place, as a ‘’sense of exile’’.
‘’Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.’’
The current quarantine and its process, are not much different. Of course, there is no social distancing in the novel, but the devastating effect of a pandemic is the same. With the rules of social-distancing, people had to separate from their loved ones and enter between the four walls of their homes. In the span of one day, we all fell into inevitable meaninglessness. Thanks to technology, our experience with the ‘sense of exile’ was not as challenging as in the book, although our daily lives slowly started to change and suddenly we weren’t able to hug our friends and family.
Another big similarity between Camus’s book and modern-day is the ongoing fight of the world of medicine against the threat. In the novel, Dr. Rieux and friends, make every effort to find a cure and help patients; Tarrou (an outsider stuck in Oran) and the authorities enroll a team of volunteers to help, all hospitals overflow with patients but defeat is always in question. Doctor Rieux, in particular, simply does not accept to go down without a fight but overall there are not enough resources and staff.
‘’…and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the death where He sits in silence.
‘’Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’’
‘’…And then I had to see people die. Do you know that there are some who refuse to die?’’ – Rieux
The parallelism of this situation to the present cannot be unseen. All health professionals from all over the world, especially Turkish professionals, have worked and fought against this virus. To work, while listening to a patient’s weak breaths or watching the light in their eyes vanish and while also worrying for their own safety, makes them the most resilient warriors of this century.
Another surprising similarity I want to mention is the response and reaction of religious figures to the virus. One of the main characters of Camus’s book is the city’s priest: Father Paneloux. After the outbreak of the plague, Father Paneloux preaches a sermon about how this plague is a test and punishment of God and how people of the city deserve this punishment for their sins and he makes the citizens feel guilty and powerless.
‘’Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and my brethren you deserved it!’’ -Paneloux
Sadly, the clergy and the religious figures of our time had a similar reaction. Most of them argued that this epidemic was caused by gay marriages, clothing of women, drinking, and smoking; in a nutshell, they said that it was a result of the ‘obnoxious’ and ‘unorthodox’ lifestyles of today. They accepted this virus as an ‘Angel of Death’ and a punishment from God.
Today, there is a noticeable decrease in the number of coronavirus patients but the global pandemic is not over yet.
At the end of Albert Camus’s ‘Plague’, the pandemic suddenly vanishes and the chaos is over. However, Doctor Rieux deep down knows this microbe is still out somewhere and will be hidden with the rats or everyday items, to come back one day.
After analyzing the similarities of a fictional book written in 1947 and the current state of the world, it is not that difficult to see the truth in Rieux’s thoughts. But, holding on to life and giving it meaning, no matter what happens is humanity’s greatest gift to itself.
‘’And for some time, anyhow, they would be happy. They know now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.’’
This article was written by guest writer Mina Turgay. Mina is a senior in a French high school: Saint Joseph. She is a feminist and a writer who loves to read philosophy and poetry, does tarot readings, loves nature, and has an interest in sociology and anthropology. You can follow her through her Instagram page.