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Dr. Rieux, Meet Dr. Fauci

(Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. NIAID Director. Photo: NIAID)

Seeing Albert Camus’s
The Plague with 2020 Vision

In the summer of 2020, seventeen Drexel University students, many of them international students, Zoomed into my Great Works class to explore Albert Camus’s The Plague. The students found themselves amazed at how eerily this World War Two allegory paralleled our own struggle with Covid-19. Many characters in the novel endure quarantine, exile, and the pain of separation from loved ones, and so did a number of my students. Camus describes many of his characters’ actions as expressing the best of humanity; similarly, my students gained a sense of optimism as they observed the empathy and solicitude of doctors and nurses, the tireless service of sanitation workers, and everyday people sharing kindnesses. These and other parallels made reading this masterpiece a real-life experience for us. The line between the novel and now became porous. Of course, we were not caught in an actual war, but we were fighting on four fronts: the coronavirus, the state of the economy, the cultural upheaval of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the looming presidential election. Guiding students through this novel at this time—and, just as often, standing back to listen in amazement to their insights and debates—was easily the most exciting experience of my twenty years of teaching.

Both a philosophical inquiry and a novel of action, The Plague is set in the then-French Algerian town of Oran, which is in the grip of an epidemic of the bubonic plague. The gruesome and agonizing disease allegorizes the German occupation of France; the fight against it, undertaken by medical doctors and citizen volunteers, represents the French resistance. The quarantine that health authorities institute to contain the epidemic echoes the border closures during the occupation, a type of imprisonment that forces loved ones to live apart in loneliness and longing, or, as Camus often puts it, to linger in a state of exile.

I had taught the novel several times before, but grappling with the book in past years, intellectually exciting as it was, was a historical and academic experience. Whenever we talked about epidemics of the past, such as the actual black death, polio, malaria, zika, the influenza of 1918, or even HIV/AIDS, our discussions felt safe, remote, even antiseptic. Now, however, we were in the midst of our own plague, and our perceptions were extraordinarily sharpened. We came to read the book as a chronicle of our own experience. So immersed were the students in the now of the book that I periodically had to call the class’s attention to Camus’s subtle and not-so-subtle references to Nazism, the Holocaust, the occupation, and the resistance. As electrical engineering major Christina Strobel wrote, “I found it absolutely fascinating that everything Camus described was what we went through in our own pandemic. He would describe things, and I would think ‘I’ve been there,’ or ‘I’ve felt that.’ I kept having to remind myself that Camus hadn’t actually witnessed what the world is going through today.” 

Because many of my students lived abroad or had family in other countries, they related keenly to pain of separation that many of Camus’s characters feel as they find themselves trapped in quarantined Oran. A biomedical engineering student, Kebeh Maryann Oden said, “It is hard being away from my family. My mum is in Nigeria, and we try to talk every day, but it is hard. Summer was the time for all my family to come together and enjoy time with each other.” Muhammad Ubaid Ullah, an economics and finance major, was in a similar situation. “I think I am living in exile. Sure, today’s lockdown is not comparable to the one in Oran, but I’m still locked away from Pakistan, my home. I can video call my family to talk, but I cannot be with them in a time they need me emotionally.” American students writing from the States did not feel exiled, but they certainly felt lonely. The people in Oran mostly had to rely on ten-word telegrams to reach others out of town. All the students marveled at how much easier it was for us with the Internet and cell phones, even though our technological marvels could not fully resolve separation anxiety and loneliness. As data science major Palash Pandey, now back home in India, observed, “All the tech in the world can’t help you when you’re stranded in an airport worrying if immigration will let you through.”

The book follows the tireless efforts of the book’s protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux as he attempts to tend to the victims of the plague. Who was our Dr. Rieux? Hands down, it was Dr. Anthony Fauci, everyone in the class agreed. His was the voice of sanity and reason, always serving, always there to protect the public’s health. Old Dr. Castel who tries and tries to develop anti-plague serum mirrors our medical researchers, who are racing to develop treatments and vaccines for Covid-19.

And who comprised our “sanitary squads,” the citizen volunteers organized by Dr. Rieux’s friend Tarrou to help combat the plague by transporting victims and improving health conditions, risking infection as they worked? (In the book, these teams represent the French resistance.) Everyone immediately said they were the health care workers, the guys who hauled away our trash, the food processing workers, indeed, all the essential workers who often were putting their lives on the line to care for us and feed us. I named as our class’s own “Tarrou” student Amber Bolli, a biology major and aspiring veterinarian who is serving as a volunteer contact tracer in the state of Pennsylvania. Maybe I overdid it. Despite the distance of Zoom, I think I saw Amber shrink from my praise. Palak Bhargava, an engineering and math major from New Delhi, said, “Custodians were the ultimate yet the most underrated sanitary squad workers. The people who wipe our floors and hallways, pick up our garbage, clean our sewers and do much more—all without a sliver of praise.” And while Camus demurs from overpraising as heroes people who are simply doing what basic common decency demands, the students nevertheless honored as heroes all the essential workers who served us diligently in our time of plague. 

In the novel, a combination of coming cold weather, a possible weakening of the disease, and Dr. Castel’s newest serum puts an end to the epidemic. Speaking through Dr. Rieux, who has endured the deaths of many including those dearest to him, Camus concludes with a call to vigilance and a declaration of hope for humankind, stating “quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Most students drew from the book a sense of optimism and pointed out how many people showed their good sides in this time of coronavirus and civil unrest. Once again, all the students spoke of their admiration for the doctors and nurses, delivery drivers, sanitation workers, and other essential personnel who kept us functioning during these fraught months. Audrey Coffey, a psychology major living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, praised those protesting in support of Black Lives Matter and those checking in on loved ones. Tommy Nguyen, a computer science major from the Chicago area, expressed cautious optimism as he spoke about “non-profits and governmental organizations coming together to create policies to help people in need.” Among such uplifting measures, he listed “pauses on evictions, stimulus checks… and people cleaning up broken glass after the George Floyd riots.” Ultimately, he said, The Plague made him more optimistic about overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic. Other class members praised people who sewed masks and made charitable contributions. Several students pointed out that the stay-at-home guidelines enabled them to get to know themselves and their partners better. A few also noted that the lockdown triggered some divorces.

Tarik Kose, an information systems major residing in Philadelphia wrote, “Despite all the negativity around the virus and people who aren’t doing their part, but are instigating further negativity, there are many slivers of positivity that give me hope.” He also drew the distinction between “plagues of the flesh” over which we have little control and “plagues that darken our hearts”—these, he said, are the ones we have some power to avoid. Christina Strobel, the electrical engineering major, for whom the book had an uncanny way of expressing many of her feelings, wrote, “We don’t need to be saints or doctors, just people who know what we are capable of,” people who are aware “that we only have a limited time to relieve as much suffering as possible.”

When the town of Oran announces the official end of the plague, citizens swarm the streets in celebration, a scene reminiscent of rejoicing at the liberation of Paris. This August, there was a massive pool party in Wuhan, China where revelers celebrated the city’s bounce back from the health crisis. Quite a few class members debated the rights and wrongs of the Wuhan pool party. Would there, I asked, be dancing in the streets when we get a Covid-19 vaccine? I do not recall any of the students’ thinking that huge public celebrations would erupt in America, though one person said that he expected some wild times at private parties and in bars. Mostly the students expected a muted response, stating what many health authorities have told us, that the coronavirus would continue to live among us. For as Camus says, referring doubly to reigns of terror and onslaughts of disease, “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” Aarnav Chauhan, a finance and business analytics major from Mumbai, observed that we can never truly consider ourselves free of pandemics. “In 2020,” he wrote, “we are still completely unprepared for an event that has occurred at least every century for several centuries.”

Still, the students hung on to a prevailing belief in human goodness. Just as Camus maintains that there are “more things to admire in men than to despise,” Amber Bolli, the biology major and volunteer contact tracer, summed it up best: “Our biggest takeaway from this novel and in our current times, is just how well humanity can come together in times of need.”

It is always the right time to read or teach Albert Camus’s The Plague. This year, however, the masterpiece astounds and enlightens more than ever.

Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, and translator and teaches at Drexel University. She is the author of eight books, including The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky, 2020) and Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky, 2013), a 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry.

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