“A loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s own work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.” (237)
I opened the pages of Camus’ The Plague looking for a cathartic relief from my ongoing frustration with my country’s irrational fear toward the Ebola epidemic currently ongoing in Western Africa. As an inpatient nurse at a large medical center in San Francisco I find that that Ebola is frequently a topic of public interest – no social engagement is complete without someone asking me about Ebola preparedness and risks of infection here in the states and at my work. I try to respond respectfully, but honestly, I find the zealous fear hard to appreciate because the likelihood of an outbreak here or in any industrialized country is extremely low. In no way do I make light of the horrible things happening in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the number of people affected by this devastating disease in such a short time frame is terrible. However, the causes for the epidemic in Africa are multifactorial and have a lot to do with the culture, widespread poverty, and ultimate lack of medical infrastructure to respond to an outbreak. The protections in the industrialized world such as public sanitation measures, the strength of medical response networks, and governmental authority all reduce the potential for an outbreak to be widespread. To many sci-fi movies such as World War Z and 28 Days Later have bred a false sense that infectious diseases have an instantaneous and immediate onset. The truth is that the flu is more dangerous in the industrialized world than Ebola.
I’ll gladly eat my words if I’m wrong, but I see the media frenzy on the African epidemic affecting America as more damaging than good. Most of my frustration is based upon the reality of the ignored epidemics I see everyday such as heart disease, diabetes, renal failure, liver failure, and substance abuse. These are real problems in this country but they are rarely topics of conversation when people find out I am a nurse nor are they headline news material. The latest interest in a disease I’ll likely never treat or even witness confuses me. The real medical problems afflicting this country are often ignored by the news and rarely ignite conversation with my peers and acquaintances. Even more frustrating, from my perspective was the proposal that all medical providers who visit west Africa to assist in the Ebola outbreak be routinely quarantined on return to America regardless of symptoms. This is a dystopian response is fueled by fear ignorant of scientific understanding. Again, I’ll gladly eat my words if I’m wrong, but what frustrates me about the media induced culture of fear is that this country is too quick to surrender dignity and rights in order to appease the desires of a potential mass hysteria: one only need to reflect upon the necessity to remove their shoes, belt, hat, and jacket when boarding a flight at the airport to understand the extent of our irrational necessity to appear as though we are doing something to prevent the likely unforeseeable in order to assuage the culture of fear.
“Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off all of us in the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left of us but a series of present moments.” (165)
With that rant off my chest, I’ll turn my attention to Albert Camus’ excellent allegorical novel, The Plague. There is a lot to offer in this book which covers themes of community, exile, religion, politics, economics, and human character in times of trial. With The Plague, the existentialist Camus and author of The Stranger reveals a more humanistic perspective than expected from the author of the bleak perspective witnessed in his most famous book. The idea of the story is simple – the French Algerian city of Oran is subjected to an outbreak of bubonic plague. The city is gated off an quarantined from the outside world to reduce the risk of spreading the epidemic beyond the city’s borders. In the quarantine visitors and reporters are restricted from returning to their homes outside the city. The death toll increases week by week and as the body count climbs the burial practices degrade from ceremonial memorial to simply dumping bodies in a shallow pit. An underground economy thrives as goods such as liquor and food become scarce and smugglers become the elite and powerful.
Despite the assumed dissolution of social ethical morality, there are several characters who withstand the ethical dilemma presented by the plague. There is the doctor Rieux who acts purely out of duty for his profession and persistently subjects himself to the risk of infection to simply serve those who would expect his services. There is the morally minded Tarrou who aims to be a saint through his actions despite his lack of religious faith and conversely there is the priest, Father Paneloux who speaks with a religious fervor to provide a moral compass to the confused people but later loses his direction and perspective after witnessing the painful death of a young child. The visiting journalist Rambert seeks to find asylum and escape from the quarantined prison and reunite with his wife but later decides to stay within the confines of Oran and dedicate his abilities to the sanitation services organized by Tarrou. These are but a few characters to speak of, this novel is stacked with allegorical characters each representing a believable possibility of a city faced with the ravage of an epidemic of plague.
This novel was so different from The Stranger that it was hard to believe that it was written by the same author. The narrative of The Stranger is direct and brief, focusing on the principle character of Mersault. The Plague weaves its narrative amongst many perspectives and is told as though it were a journalist synopsis of the events that take place in the plague stricken city of Oran. There is a first person accounting, but the narrator is purposefully removed and objective, unwilling to stipulate the emotional intentions of its characters and in so doing the narration lacks speculation. I did find the narrative style somewhat disengaging because the absence of emotional quality caused failed to capture the engagement of this reader, but I understand what Camus’s purpose was in utilizing this style. Through the use of a chronicle accounting of the events that take place The Plague obtains a quality of believability. The events that take place within the borders of the plague stricken Oran are events that can take place in any city faced with epidemic.
In so doing, The Plague achieves a vision of heightened moral accomplishment that is absent in similar stories such as Saramago’s Blindness. Within Camus’ The Plague there is an appreciation for the hope obtainable within human character. The acceptance of this hope brings me back to my original rant about the culture of fear ignited by the Ebola outbreak. I can accept that those who simply witness epidemic through the information presented via the media will be blind towards the reality of the true epidemics that surround us. As an individual in the frontline treating those epidemics I witness the effect and impact of disease upon the population of those who I serve and I do not allow myself to fall to discouragement despite the challenges, sadness, and failures I observe. There are people in this world that will secure the safety of others whatever the epidemic may be. There are people in this world who will take advantage of the sick and ill. There are people in this world who simply are and continue be who they are for themselves and for others. For that, there is nothing to fear.
“And for some time, anyhow, they wold be happy. They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love…But for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual human toward something they could not imagine, there had been no answer…If others, however…had got what they wanted, this was because they had asked for the one thing that depended on them solely…it was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward.” (271)