“There have been as many plagues as worst in history; yet always plagues and wars to take people equally by surprise”(Camus, 34).
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 certainly did take the world by surprise. At a conference in February, we discussed the rising numbers in China and what the travel industry might do if the virus was to spread outside the region. Later that month in Ethiopia, we were counting our good fortune that the virus had not hit Africa yet. By the time I arrived stateside, Seattle was a hotbed to virus activity, two weeks later in March, the city of Portland shut down.
I kept track of the changes as I observed them: the first time I worse a mask in public, the first time I saw public signage about mask wearing, the first time I bought something with plexiglass between me and the cashier. Everything suddenly felt sterile. Every time I went in public I felt like people treated me like a harbor of disease.
The Plague by Albert Camus sold out on Amazon.
That’s when I remembered I already owned a copy I had never read.
By April Camus had back from the past to save me. His book, written 60 years ago, described what our world was going through so precisely. It was almost more accurate than watching the news. It was a warning, a prediction.
Reading The Plague by Camus was also healing and cathartic. It was so relevant and timely it almost felt like a friend speaking into my ear, telling me what has happened, and what is left to come. Even he said what so many others are echoing now: “Every day that passes we are one day closer to the end of this ordeal.”
My favorite quotes that seem to describe March 2020:
“But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and - together with fear – the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead…
“One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gate was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it” (Camus, 61).
“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile… It was undoubtably the feeling of exile – that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire… We returned to our prison-houses, we had nothing left to us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea - anyhow, as soon as could be – once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it” (Camus, 65).
From summer and Fall 2020:
“They came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose” (Camus, 66).
“They seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices – in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally” (Camus, 69).
“In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, Dusty night fall into a sort of hectic exaltation, and unkempt freedom fevering their blood” (Camus, 111).
From January 2021, after Biden’s election and the vaccine being released:
“All agreed that the amenities of the past couldn’t be restored at once; destruction is an easier, speedier process then reconstruction… But in reality behind these mild aspirations lurks wild, extravagant hopes, and often one of us, becoming aware of this, would hastily add that, even on the rosiest view, you could expect the plague to stop from one day to another” (Camus, 241).
“The fluctuated between high optimism and extreme depression” (Camus, 244).
“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen closets; that it bodes it’s time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (Camus, 278).