Life as Plague: Thoughts on Camus and Ebola

the plagueAbout six weeks ago, I was looking around for some books to take with me on a long flight to Boston, and chose as one of them The Plague by Albert Camus. Though Camus has long been one of my favorite authors, undoubtedly the Ebola crisis had more than a little to do with my choice. (Later I learned that NPR book critic Michael Schwab had previously recommended the book  as “this week’s must read,” describing it as a way to find “meaning in the midst of Ebola.”)

The novel was written in 1947, and tells the story of how the city of Oran, Algeria, was overtaken by a severe outbreak of Bubonic Plague, with thousands of people dying miserably, much like what is happening today in West Africa. Admittedly, it is a difficult read, especially since you find yourself rereading the author’s brilliantly crafted sentences, pregnant with multiple meanings. The city of Oran was actually devastated by the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries, and later by an outbreak of cholera in 1849, which wiped out much of the population. The book can also be viewed as an allegory of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, since Camus was very much a part of that resistance. Relentlessly, the plague rages on, month by month, as a team of doctors and medical volunteers fight to stop the spread of the deadly disease. All seems hopeless, but rather than despair, the medical team plugs on valiantly. I was touched by how Camus lovingly illuminates the inner life and humanity of each character, investing each one with an essential dignity. I think this is what I found most moving about the novel. In the words of the narrator and main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Camus reminds us that life itself can be seen as a kind of plague. No matter how well we plan or predict, there is always an irrational side to the universe—be it an epidemic, war, or killer asteroid—that may strike without warning, bringing us suffering and exile from homes and loved ones. Like death, such upsets will eventually find each one of us, no matter how secure we think we are in our gated communities, bomb shelters, and fenced-in countries. Our task as human beings is to carry on and help each other survive, and not give in to fear and despair.

As we watch and listen to the endless news reports of the Ebola scourge, we must resist both the numbness of media overdose and our all too human tendency toward irrational fear. Lately I find myself becoming increasingly disgusted by the calls of some of my fellow humans calling for drastic and counterproductive measures such as cancelling all airline flights to and from West Africa or closing our borders even further. In such times, rather than dwelling on the negative qualities of our species, I try to focus instead on the many brave men and women who this very moment are working to stop this horrible disease, and to commiserate with the many unfortunate victims of my human family. And I remember a line from the last page of The Plague: “…to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”