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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Resonances from Camus' 'The Plague'

Historians are becoming less reluctant in turning to works of fiction to illuminate the past, for examples the novels of the 18th century. I am going to turn your attention to Camus' 1947 novel, not to illustrate the past but to throw light on the present.

Camus tells the story of a fictional outbreak of The Plague in the then French port of Oran, set sometime in the 1940s.

'Our townsfolk ......presuppossed that pestilences were impossible'. How many people in Britain were aware that a pandemic of some variety was inevitable? I remember lecturing about the flu epidemic back in 2008 and people rather laughing at me when I said we are due another. A rather sweet Victorian belief that science had taken away the threat of a pandemic like that which hit us, and the world, at the end of The First War.

'....the weather appeared set fair......There was a serene blue sky flooded with a golden light each morning ........all seemed well with the world'. And so it does to us, as we enjoy Spring sunshine and rising temperatures. It seems almost unbelievable that 'plague' stalks our land. Everything, other than the lockdown itself, seems for the vast majority of us 'normal'.

Later in the novel, Camus notes, 'You had to look closely and take thought, to realize the plague was here. For it betrayed its presence only by negative signs'.

'One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it'. Well, that rings very true of our own lockdown and self isolation orders.

'..very soon those who were prisoners of the plague realized the terrible danger to which this would expose their relatives, and sadly resigned themselves to their absence'. When Camus was writing there was no internet, and all they had to maintain contact was an erratic postal service and dodgy telephones. How lucky we are to be able to zoom and use other technological ways to keep in contact with absent friends and family. Indeed, many of us have experienced an unexpected bonus in being reunited with friends and even family with whom, over the years, we have lost communication.

'It was still impossible to administer prophylactic inoculations elsewhere than in families already attacked; if its use was to be generalised, very large quantities of the vaccine would have been needed'. Just so. In regards to tests and to PPE this was a lesson that Camus taught us nearly three quarters of a century ago. We need better planning for the future, and one part to the plan could be worse than requiring all Ministers to read Camus on taking office!

' It was done through official channels, and half-heartedly. What they're short of is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic'. How true that observation is: The near on three quarter of a million volunteers answering the Government's call to arms, as well as the thousands, hundreds of thousands, of ordinary people doing magnificent things for others during this terrible time. I am proud to say that my school in deepest rural Somerset has been 'mass' producing, literally hundreds of, visors every day for use as far away as Southampton Hospital. Camus a little later in his work writes,'What's true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.'

And a warning: '... feeling was embodied in a slogan shouted in the streets and chalked up on the walls: Bread - or fresh air! This ....was the signal for some demonstrations which, though easily repressed, made everyone aware that an ugly mood was developing amongst us'.

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