Reading “The Plague” during a pandemic

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Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

— Psalm 91: 1-6

A friend of more than 50 years sent me a link to the above psalm in a recent email. As Easter approaches, and most of us worship either online or alone, it brought me comfort.


There have been as many plagues as wars in history. Yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

— Albert Camus

 I just finished re-reading The Plague by Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and philosopher (the latter was a title he rejected, unsuccessfully.) Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. It was translated into English by Stuart Gilbert a year later. I first read it in high school. I looked for that copy in my collection but couldn’t find it, so I ordered another copy from Amazon. It took longer than usual to arrive; clearly the notion of reading a classic novel about a plague during a pandemic has occurred to many others.

Camus was originally from Algeria but traveled to Paris during the war to fight with the French Resistance. Born in 1913, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957 — a decade after publishing The Plague. Three years later, Camus was killed instantly in automobile accident at 46, when the luxury car driven by his publisher hit a tree as they returned from a holiday retreat. The publisher died a few days later, and the world lost a genius.

The Plague is set in Oran, Algeria, an actual city that at the time Camus wrote the novel had 200,000 residents. Its population now approaches 1.5 million. Its protagonist is Dr. Bernard Rieux, who, we learn toward the end, is the narrator. The plague begins with the increasing deaths of rats. Soon, the rodents are dying by the thousands and being heaped in piles to await the sanitation trucks. Then, people begin dying of bubonic plague (a far-deadlier disease than COVID-19.) At first, city officials are reluctant to acknowledge what Dr. Rieux knows to be true: that this is a pandemic. Soon, the entire city is on lockdown. No one is allowed in or out.

Many of Oran’s citizens behave bravely, others badly. As the plague continues to take lives indiscriminately, Rieux attends Mass and listens to Father Paneloux’s homily. Rieux, not a religious man, concludes: There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal in the disorders of a pestilence. Nor should we listen to certain moralists who told us to sink on our knees and give up the struggle. No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.

The curve begins to flatten — Camus uses the same phrase being used now. The plague leaves as swiftly as it arrives, and the gates are opened. The townspeople who survived join in celebration and fireworks. But Rieux understands the plague never really leaves:  He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up the rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.


After finishing the book, I went outside to admire the Super Moon. The night was alive with the croaking of tree frogs. I gave thanks and prayed silently. For all of us.

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