After World War II, the French novelist Albert Camus published The Plague, a fictional account of a plague that hits a north African town. While Camus’s narrative is in part an allegory of the plague of world war and Nazism, it is fundamentally about the different psychological and ethical reactions to the suffering, separation, and death that accompany a pandemic. Camus’s philosophical novel can provoke us to reflect more deeply about our common humanity and to inspire us, amid our divisive ideological differences, to be more compassionate and modest and to work together better to minimize suffering during this time of pandemic and beyond.
The suspense of Camus’s novel stems from the characters’ different perspectives on their own lives and the actions they take in response to the suffering and death in their town. There is an “outsider” foreign journalist who gets trapped when the town is closed off to prevent spread of the plague. He attempted to flee to be reunited with his lover, objecting to his exile because his private happiness is stronger and more real than the rational “abstraction” of protecting others from infection. However, after working with the sanitary squads and observing the suffering, he realizes that it would be shameful to abandon the town and enjoy his own happiness during the others’ plight.
There is a Catholic priest who at first sermonizes that the plague is divine justice for the punishment of the townspeople’s sins. However, after witnessing the painful, protracted death of an innocent child, the priest can no longer accept that simple explanation. He subsequently challenges his congregation to rethink its faith by making an “all or nothing” existential choice: either love God and be humiliated by an apparently unjust creation or reject God and live in spiritual darkness. To choose the “all” means an uncompromising duty to fight for humanity at the risk of death, as Jesus did.
Then there is an atheist, whose experiences with the death of innocent persons by the actions of others leads to the realization that the plague is not something that afflicts people from the outside but exists within everyone. It is unavoidable that people will harm or “infect” others—not with a literal virus but by causing some form of suffering to them. We spread viruses in large and small ways through ignorance, inattention, selfishness, and ideological rigidity. The only way to combat humanity’s plague-stricken condition is to be as diligent as possible and live according to the ultimate ethical virtue: compassion.
Finally, there is medical doctor, the narrator of the events. He sees the worst of human suffering and will make no compromises with the truth to appease political authorities and journalists who want to believe in more favorable conditions. Without illusions—and cognizant that healers are involved in an unending struggle in a world of suffering and death—the doctor is ultimately motivated by common decency and, unlike the priest and atheist, has no grander understanding of the meaning of the plague other than to fight against it.
Regardless of their initial differing reactions to the outbreak of the plague, through their actual involvement with the afflicted and others in their community, the characters come to a living understanding that they shared a common humanity. Everyone is vulnerable, and the plague needs to be fought with knowledge, diligence, compassion, and humility. These are the same ethical virtues that inspire us to be as informed as possible and to resist political distortions of facts and events, find what unites and not separates us, and act with a compassion and common decency that cuts through our ideological differences to avoid infecting others and advance the public good.