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The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

By Abel Merawi

The-PlagueApril 13, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- Fiction is not always make-believe and imaginary. As the saying goes, it can be a reflection of reality. Classical literary works go even further by depicting reality with a human touch. The 1947 novel titled ‘The Plague’ by the Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, is a classic work since it transcends time and relates to our current predicament. It portrays the reality of an epidemic in the port city of Algeria, Oran. The report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Oran was actually ruined by epidemics, especially in the first half of the 20th century, after European colonization. Camus uses this fact to create a novel that takes us through every stage of a plague. Of the numerous ideas, I choose to focus on the progress of the plague and the reaction of people at every level. I hope it serves as a precursor for the way we individually and collectively cope with COVID-19.    

The novel begins when Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a dead rat, which slowly becomes the topic in town as rats were found dead everywhere. Then the curious pestilence suddenly shifts its course as it was no longer rats but people that were dying. The narrator remarks, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” Sadly, the same is true with the way we reacted to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, we didn’t want to admit it was an epidemic – we didn’t think it could happen to us. We feel it will pass like a bad dream; “But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away.” Think of the absurd arguments you have heard around you about COVID-19: some said it is just flu, others said it only affected China, then we hear some say it doesn’t affect blacks. We continued with our assumptions until it was impossible to ignore.  

The second part of ‘The Plague’ paints the picture of a city under lockdown. At this point, the city of Oran was closed from the outside world, much like Wuhan and many cities around the world. The narrator had described the feeling it aroused in our hearts when he wrote, “Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars.” Depending on the effect of the current pandemic, most countries are in a state of emergency. The hardest-hit places share the feeling of Camus. In this time, who would want to think of the past when it only makes the present more depressing. Not knowing when the plague is going to end, makes it hard to think of the future. Thus, we impatiently live in the present.

When we are agitated with the condition we face, we try to find solace from every trifle. Ironically people assumed rubbing alcohol is the same as drinking alcohol; as in this novel when shops put up the slogan: “The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine.” Just think of the various traditional medicines you heard of for curing coronavirus and you will get the picture. In a strikingly similar manner, the government called for a week a prayer – just as the Ethiopian month of prayer. As for people’s reactions, most still think it wouldn’t affect them: “Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. … Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when the plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence.” Just ask yourself how seriously you have taken COVID-19.

The stage that follows is one we should all hope to never reach. Yet it has to be mentioned because if we don’t take it seriously, the worst will follow. Plagues claim the lives of victims and change the psychological makeup of the survivors. As the narrator put it, “But under the prolonged strain it seemed that hearts had toughened; people lived beside those groans or walked past them as though they had become the normal speech of men.” To normalize suffering and death as part of existence. To take death as mere statistics is losing humanity. This feeling of indifference is a mental pestilence, which will happen when the unwelcome visitor prolongs its stay. In the hard-hit cities of Italy, we hear how COVID-19 victims die in solitude and how formal funerals are no longer an option. The worst is described in this novel: “The naked, somewhat contorted bodies were slid off into the pit almost side by side, then covered with a layer of quicklime and another of earth, the latter only a few inches deep, so as to leave space for subsequent consignments.” Let us hope and strive so it will not be so bleak.

In the third and fourth parts of the book, Camus shows the peak of the disease with the way it changes the value of life. He writes, “No longer were their individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.” As an existentialist, Albert Camus thinks of nature, including the plague, as neither good or bad. It simply happens without meaning. In such times, it is difficult for a victim to ask, ‘why me?’ because it is not personal. Just like volcanos or earthquakes, plagues don’t discriminate. Our destinies become one, we share in our suffering. Most importantly, plagues make life it hard to value life when life is only the moment. He states, “Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”

In the final part of the book, the plague suddenly begins to weaken and end just as it has come without notice. Dr. Rieux, who had fought with the plague to the end hears this from his comrade, “Of course, a man should fight for the victims, but if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what’s the use of his fighting?” We should do whatever is required to fight COVID-19 too. However, it should not change our values. We have to try to preserve our humanity. We fight plagues because we don’t want to die. In turn, we don’t want to die because we have values in life. And our fight should not be blind; it should be done with knowledge. The following words of Camus can serve as a reminder: “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

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Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society

Adwa

The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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