Lessons from Albert Camus's "The Plague"

In the late 1940s, Nobel Prize–winning French author Albert Camus saw it all coming: pestilence, quarantine, untreatable illness, a cratering economy, citizens cowering in their homes, and “frontline workers” willing to sacrifice themselves for their neighbors. No, he didn’t predict that a novel coronavirus would leap from bats to humans in the closing days of 2019, but he knew as well as any epidemiologist that terrible diseases periodically explode through human populations, and in his novel The Plague (translated from the French La Peste), he warned his contemporaries about it: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

Arguably the best work of fiction about a disease nemesis ever written, The Plague describes a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague in the French Algerian city of Oran shortly after World War II. It is a story of a pestilence in a modern European city on the African continent with telephones, cars, and other postwar technologies. Colonial France conquered Algeria in 1830 and ruled it until 1962. Camus was born there to French pieds-noir (“black feet”) parents—citizens who lived in Algeria before independence—in the small coastal town of Dréan (then Mondovi), near the Tunisian border. He studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and joined the French Resistance when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, working primarily as editor-in-chief of the outlawed newspaper Combat. He was an existentialist philosopher as well as an author of fiction, and his novel The Stranger enjoyed a decades-long run as required reading for university students.

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