Out of sight but not of mind, pestilence strikes a city on Algeria’s north-western coast

By Ben Kourakis: Literature Columnist

Albert Camus’ La Peste – or in its English translation, The Plague – has perhaps never been so relevant in contemporary society.

Centred around Oran, a town in the (then) French-occupied Algeria, Camus lets loose a mysterious plague amongst the settlement and its inhabitants. The parallels the novel has with the present day are scarily realistic at times; emotions are arisen and tensions high. It’s through this that we begin to see the various ways in which society reacts to this new-founded danger, through the emotions of everyday people to the actions of local government.

Unsurprisingly, The Plague has commercially benefitted from the Coronavirus outbreak. The reported surge of the novel’s sales include a 150% increase in February 2020 compared to the previous year, other works of ‘pestilence fiction’ topping charts, and eBook sales up by 3000% in just three weeks back in early March. On Googletrends, international search results for the terms “Albert Camus” and “Albert Camus’ The Plague” peaked, hitting 97 and a perfect 100 respectively between the 15th and 21st of March – near the time where events properly began to transpire, most notably for UK residents; the initial lockdown.

The general resemblances seem to predominately come from society’s overall response to the outbreak, in both positive or negative ways:

Primarily, there is a spirit of selfless defiance with how Camus’ characters persevere onwards. Dr Rieux and his colleagues protest against the city official’s blasé ‘wait and see’ attitude towards the plague, with Rieux demanding that the local Prefect begins enacting measures to combatant the disease, whilst Tarrou helps establish a volunteering service.

The Philanthropic side

Similarly, the outbreak of COVID-19 itself has led to defining acts of altruism and a refusal to conform. Volunteer Cuban doctors have been dispatched across the globe in order to help the effort, with 200 alone having gone to South Africa. Ruth Chaloner, a counsellor from Oxfordshire, launched a volunteer-based, free therapy website for people dealing with anxieties and loneliness brought about from the Coronavirus called “The Help Hub” whilst English Comedian and TV presenter Noel Fielding also started an Arts Club, in which kids could submit pieces and win a spot in his ‘Art Club Hall Of Fame’.

Simultaneously, vice seems to thrive in Oran, and the character of Cottard portrays this the best, he being the one who generally appears to succeed from the frenzied state of chaos the plague brought about. A somewhat-reclusive man who is in a constant state of paranoia over an unnamed crime he committed years prior, but was never caught for, Cottard benefits for all the wrong reasons. Unlike the rest of the novel’s characters he is instead entirely indifferent to combating the plague as the peoples’ collective feelings of fear puts him a state of near-euphoria as he is now no longer a social outlier of sorts. Cottard furthermore gains financially from running an underground market, selling goods that are either illegal, or are high in need but low in supply.

Just like the novel, illicit trade has sored as a result of COVID-19. There have been reported incidents of people having to resort to paying extortionate sums of money on the New Delhi black market for vials Corona immunity, allegedly for 30,000 Rupees (£310 approx.) as opposed to the official pharmaceutical pricing of 5,400 Rupees (Circa £50-70), a result of high demand. Correlating alongside this is also the increase in US unemployment rates, plummeting to 14.7% in April – though they have since steadily decreased to around 7.9% back in September – and the number of UK Universal Credit recipients expanding by 3 million households in February, to a new total of 4.2 million in May.

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Furthermore, a general consequence of this in itself are also mental factors; with an estimated ⅛ of UK adults (12.9%) having shown moderate-to-severe symptoms of depression and 1⁄5 (19.2%) having likely properly developed it itself as a result of COVID. These examples essentially mimic Cottard’s overall person effortlessly, from his mental state (at least if only prior to the plague) to his criminal activities.

Of course, there aren’t entirely consistent similarities between the novel and reality too. Unlike The Plague for example, COVID-19 hasn’t necessarily been a big metaphor for the Nazi occupation of Vichy France (at least from what we know). However, this was a big influence for Camus whilst writing the novel. Residing in the French Alps, it’s here where under the watchful eyes of the Third Reich he began to formulate his ideas and slowly start to write The Plague. Camus links his novel to the classic – or however classic pestilence can be deemed – idea of the plague being bubonic; moreso a result of thousands of rat carcasses turning up unexpectedly all over town.

Camus’ own personal defiance wasn’t necessarily against a literal plague either, but instead a metaphorical one: the Third Reich. Moving back to (still) Vichy-occupied Paris, he not only joined the French Resistance, but became the editor-in-chief of the underground leftist pro-liberation newspaper “Combat” in 1944. La Peste was still strongly inspired by a cholera outbreak that actually occurred in Oran in 1849, killing large amounts of its population though. The 1346 Black Death was also inspiration for Camus, although many now disregard theories of it being specifically started via rats, despite the conventional belief.

How the Coronavirus actually came to be is still somewhat elusive however. From conspiracy theories that it was superficially birthed in strange, ultra-secret lab, to it fermenting out of a casual neighbourhood ‘wet market’ perhaps the only sem-certainty is that it originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Camus decides to end his work on a quasi-positive note. With the pestilence having seemingly be defeated, the citizens of Oran rejoice with happiness. However, in the book’s final passge, Rieux contemplates the possibility that the plague isn’t gone forever, and that this could only be a temporary period of peace before it inevitably strikes again:

“Indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

Its ambiguity leaves a lot for the reader to wonder about the future of COVID-19 – or more specifically, the future of a human reality and society under COVID-19. Will it ever slowly wane away forever? Or ferment, waiting to be revitalised so it can put the world under siege again? These are ideas that no one could possibly answer, but even so, it seems that all humanity can do is defy and counteract, just as it did in the novel, and just as it did for all these months. However, Camus’ decision to leave what is arguably his magnum opus on this ‘cliff-hanger’ note gives it another layer of depth that expands the power of his fictional pestilence forever and makes us wonder about the future of our very own.

MACKAYAN: Modern day plague