What Camus Tells us About the Meaning of COVID-19

June 18, 2020 by Jayoung Kim


In late 2019, a report surfaced from Wuhan, China about a cluster of cases that were predicted to be caused by pneumonia. Little did the world know that it would encounter a deadly and contagious novel virus. In a matter of months, countries initiated lockdowns or quarantines to prevent further spread of the virus, beginning in late January. This situation, where lockdown orders are suddenly imposed on citizens due to a massive health crisis, highly resembles the setting in Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947).

The Plague tells a story of a French-Algerian city called Oran. The city first witnesses mass deaths of rats and subsequently the deaths of citizens, forcing Oran into a lockdown through the conclusion that there is a plague raging in the city. This book describes the situation before, during, and after the lockdown, which ensues for a year and a half.

What is important to focus on here is the responses of the citizens to the lockdown. During the first few days of lockdown, some immediately recognize that this plague is serious but most people protest against the imposed policies because of their selfish personal distress. However, as the lockdown situation becomes a part of their routine lives, people relinquish their selfish obsessions and come to recognize the plague as a collective disaster. They townspeople start to care for and help others in the best way they can. They also start to confront social responsibility and join hands in anti-plague efforts. As mortality rates decrease with the passing of time, people regain hope, dreaming of life after lockdowns and the plague.

The global responses to COVID-19 and the lockdowns today can be likened to the responses shown in The Plague. At the beginning of the plague, people display feelings of disbelief and more importantly, selfishness. They only think of their own priorities. This resembles the “coronavirus stockpiling,” or the stockpiling of essentials, as well as panic buying. In northern England and the US, some people anxiously stockpiled daily essentials like food and toiletries to prepare for periods of isolation, limiting other people from accessing them. We can find instances all across the world of people rejecting scientists’ claims and refusing to obey precautionary measures, thinking that the virus wouldn’t harm them. Despite warnings to stay away from public places, people still hung out at pubs and partied in the streets.

Only as infection rates got higher and lockdowns became an inevitable reality did people start to understand the gravity of the situation and follow government lockdown policies. In addition, people started to recognize that the pandemic is a communal and global issue, thereby joining projects to either fight against COVID-19 or help other people at a higher risk from the virus. One example of such a project is an online program created by members of “Zooniverse,” a citizen science platform,  using the expertise of numerous volunteers to crowdsource data to form insights into the crisis. Others participated in projects to distribute essentials and sanitary equipment to those in need, regardless of geographic borders. Many people are doing their part as they hope that the global pandemic crisis will soon come to an end, as scientists rush to develop accurate medical kits and coronavirus vaccines. As the number of recovered patients exceeds the number of deaths, many countries are slowly easing their lockdown policies and gradually allowing citizens to return to their normal lives.

What might our lives look like after the pandemic? The Plague foreshadows a possible post-COVID-19 world. At the end of the book, as the gates of Oran reopen, the narrator concludes that life will never be the same.  Although the citizens of Oran would try to continue their normal lives, the plague would always be among them, in their memories. Similarly, life after COVID-19 will never be the same. Although lockdown measures will be alleviated, allowing people to resume their lives as they did before the pandemic, life will not be the exact same as before since people now have collectively experienced the dread and consequences of the pandemic. Changes in lifestyle due to the virus will have lasting effects. Working remotely has already become a norm for some company employees; traveling abroad has become less popular; maintaining a distance from strangers or large groups has become a habit. COVID-19 has even led some people to change their perspective on life. Many have started to become more appreciative of what they have and “live in the moment,” due to the uncertainty of how things are going to be the next day.

The Plague does not stop at simply implying that life will change after the pandemic. In fact, the novel tells readers today that the COVID-19 crisis should be realized as more than a scar in history that brought about many changes in our lifestyle. Rather, it should function as a shield for humanity. In other words, it should serve as a means by which the world can reflect on their past mistakes and their experiences to assess the necessary values, leadership, and preparedness in these trying times. Camus teaches us the importance of learning from our experiences of the COVID-19 to prepare for the next waves of the coronavirus as well as the next global pandemic.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.