The Plague and The Absurd

J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

The Plague was a novel published in 1947 by Nobel Prize winning author Albert Camus. It took place in Oran, a city in Algeria. Hundreds of diseased rats died in the streets. The problem was ignored until there were thousands of dead rats. (The first plague was indifference.) The newspaper reported the strange occurrence. (The second plague was confusion.) Suddenly, the people panicked. In a swift effort to return to normalcy, city officials collected the rats and cremated them. (The third plague was haste.)

Incidentally, collecting the rat corpses initiated the bubonic plague.

After one man died unexpectantly from a fever, two doctors recognized the correlating symptoms and concluded an epidemic could spread through the city. The doctors informed city officials that—the plague—caused the death of a man with a non-life-threatening fever, but the officials thought the doctors were overreacting to a single death. (The fourth plague was denial.)

Within days more people died.

It was apparent an epidemic engulfed the city, but officials were slow to accept the seriousness of the matter. (The fifth plague was disbelief.) Once the grim reality was accepted, the officials quarreled over the appropriate measures to take next. (The sixth plague was indecisiveness.) City officials ordered a serum for the plague, directives were announced, and precautionary notices were posted to reassure the public the situation was under control.

But it wasn’t. (The seventh plague was false hope.)

A special ward for the infected opened in the hospital, but it was filled to capacity in a matter of days. The death toll rose dramatically. City officials ordered strict supervision over burials and quarantined the rest of the infected in their homes. (The eighth plague was desperation.)

When the serum arrived, city officials realized there was only enough to treat the existing cases. The shipment of serum the city received depleted the country’s emergency supply and it would take months before the country developed any more serum. As soon as the deaths in Oran reached—30 a day—an official epidemic was declared. The authorities of Algeria sealed off Oran and the city’s gates were closed. (The ninth plague was fear.)

Travel in and out of the city was prohibited, all mail deliveries were suspended, and the telephone lines were restricted to emergency calls. The only way for the city’s quarantined people to contact outsiders was through brief telegrams.

Months went by.

The religious leaders preached God’s wrath and the need for repentance. The criminal element smuggled in goods to make a profit. The people started to riot and loot. The city declared martial law and imposed a curfew. Those that tried to escape the city were shot outside the city gates by the army.

At the midpoint of the novel, the isolation depressed the people, and the depression broke the human spirit. (The tenth plague was the absurd.) I stopped retelling this story at the midpoint because America is at the midpoint of the coronavirus pandemic. The first nine plagues I placed in parentheses described what debilitated the federal government’s response, but the final plague isn’t solely about the government.

The author of The Plague wrote philosophical novels to explore the nakedness of mankind when faced with the absurd. Camus believed humans lived in an incomprehensible universe that was indifferent to human existence. (In other words, the universe didn’t prioritize human life over any other creature like the god of theism.) The human condition becomes absurd when the universe inflicts random catastrophes such as natural disasters and pandemics. This is when humans discover the fragility of the mind and the frailness of the body, and society, as a whole, discovers the limitations of its institutions and the delicacy of its social order. How each generation deals with—the absurd—determines whether or not civilization is advancing or regressing.

A headline in The Atlantic suggested: America is acting like a failed state during the coronavirus pandemic.

Is that accurate or is it absurd?


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