Camus’ The Plague has Lessons for a Modern Pandemic

Lessons for 2020 from Camus' La Peste | Faculty of Medieval and Modern  Languages

by Griffith Littlehale

Starting in 2020, Albert Camus’ The Plague entered the best sellers list with sales up 300% in some countries. The Plague, published in 1947, was the key part of a body of work that won Albert Camus the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature. A staple in literature classes, the book has tremendous relevance to how people, organizations, and nations have responded to the pandemic.

The Quick Summary

The Plague was written by Camus as an allegory to his own experience of living under the Germans in WWII France. It is a fictional account of the advent of the bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran. City authorities initiate a strict lockdown only after the severity of the situation becomes impossible to deny. With their sudden imprisonment, the public reacts selfishly, heralding their pain to be unique to common suffering.

Eventually, the public starts to recognize the plague as a societal issue and work together. Some radicals, like the local priest, remain individualistic and committed to their more extreme views. The book’s main characters and the protagonist act as voices of reason and moderating forces working toward solutions.

What Lessons Can We Learn from the Plague?

Camus’ book is an exploration in moderation more than anything. It shows dramatic positions that are ineffective when contraposed by the effective behavior of those that reason and act in moderation.

Some of the main points that apply to today are:

Working Together Works

In the book, the main characters work together, achieving extraordinary results compared to those acting out of pure self-interest. As we have repeatedly witnessed throughout the pandemic, organizations and states that work together have had the greatest success. Countries with high social cohesion like Israel and Denmark have had great success with vaccinations and combating the virus, as opposed to countries with high independence, like the U.S.

The “Rebel” is the Moderate

In The Plague, we see that extremes are bad and neither one extreme nor the other is the true rebel. On one side is a group that is change-resistant. The other side is advocating radical change. In the middle are those that resist and focus on common-sense solutions that involve everyone. They are the true rebels. It is no wonder that we have seen many experts relegated to positions of disdain by others. Thinkers and planners have been the real rebels during this time.

The Absurdity of Life

The Plague shows us that mankind is constantly thrust into positions like the current pandemic and often responds in many absurd ways. We see that life has no purpose until we face conflict together and take the well-being of others into account. Haven’t we seen much the same the last two years? When humanity works together, we are amazing and have a purpose. When we fight among ourselves, life becomes absurd.

The Plague offers a lot of lessons that apply today and should be read by everyone. Most importantly though, it shows that hope and solutions always exist at the point where we work together with common regard and purpose.

Griffith Littlehale is a writer and lover of classical literature and art. Currently, Griffith is a student at the University of Toledo.