Last week I re-read The Plague, the Nobel Prize-winning novel by French Absurdist Albert Camus, covering almost the same subject as that which currently concerns most people in the world.
The similarities are startling, in fact – and I wanted to describe them for you in an article (or several).
The first aspect of the novel that hits home to today’s reader should be the abject unpreparedness of the characters for any kind of epidemic illness in their midst.
I should explain that the story is set in the Algerian town of Oran, whose citizens are mostly concerned with making money. Some may see a similarity with the UK under the Conservative government! At the time in which it is set (194-, as these novels invariably describe themselves), Algeria is a French colony and major decisions about Oran are made by the colonial authorities.
The plague – bubonic plague in this case, or at least, that’s how the doctors consider it – first manifests itself in the appearance, all over the town, in increasing frequency and ever-greater numbers, of dead rats. The human beings who encounter them simply pick them up and get rid of them, without considering any repercussions – making themselves easy prey for the contagion, which at first manifests itself in individuals (of course).
The protagonist, Dr Bernard Rieux, calls up a few other doctors and discovers around 20 similar cases over a few days – almost all of them fatal. So he asks Dr Richard – president of the Association of Doctors in Oran – if new patients can be isolated.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Richard said. The measure would have to be taken by the Prefect. In any case, who told you there was any risk of infection?”
“Nothing tells me that there is, but the symptoms are disturbing.”
However, Richard felt that “he was not qualified”. All he could do was to mention it to the authorities.
If he indeed goes through with that, the authorities do nothing. Isn’t that similar to the situation in the UK? Boris Johnson was notified of the existence and potential harm likely to be caused by Covid-19 as early as November 2019 (if not before) and did nothing.
As long as each doctor was not aware of more than two or three cases, no one thought to do anything. But, after all, someone only had to decide to do an addition, and the tally was disturbing. In barely a few days the number of fatal cases multiplied, and it was clear to those who were concerned with this curious illness that they were dealing with a real epidemic.
The Johnson government would have been made aware of similar disturbing figures via SAGE meetings (among others) during the early part of the year. But nothing was done. Why? Perhaps my next quotation alludes to the reason – a speech by an older doctor, Castel:
“I don’t need tests. I spent part of my life working in China, and I saw a few cases in Paris, twenty years ago – though no one dared put a name to it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic.”
Do you think that’s what happened here? That the government refused to address the facts of Covid-19 because Johnson and his cronies didn’t want to cause a panic? We know they were – and remain – highly concerned with the economy, and seemed desperate to keep everybody at work until absolutely the last minute.
Moving on, Rieux succeeds in persuading the Prefect’s office to appoint a health commission. Still the public are being kept in the dark:
“It’s true that people are starting to worry,” Richard agreed, “and gossip exaggerates everything. The Prefect told me, ‘Let’s act quickly if you like, but keep quiet about it.’ Anyway, he is sure that it’s a false alarm.”
And how about this:
“Do you know,” Castel said, “that the departement has no serum?”
“I know. I phoned the warehouse. The manager was flabbergasted. It has to be brought from Paris.”
So, in the book, the characters had no medication with which to treat the plague. The authorities were unprepared – just as the Johnson government failed to prepare for Covid-19 – despite years of warnings – and did not stock up on ventilators, personal protective equipment, and testing kits or make sure the NHS had the capacity to handle an outbreak of the magnitude Covid-19 eventually became.
I like to think that the discussions in the book, among those who are aware of the plague at this point, may have been similar to those in SAGE and the Cabinet, viz:
The Prefect was pleasant, but nervous.
“Let’s get started, gentlemen,” he said. “Do I have to summarize the situation?”
Richard thought there was no need. The doctors knew the situation already. The question was merely to decide on the proper course of action.
“The question,” old Castel said bluntly, is to decide whether we are dealing with the plague or not.”
Two or three doctors protested, while the others appeared hesitant. As for the Prefect, he leapt up in his seat and automatically turned towards the door, as though checking that it had really prevented this enormity from spreading down the corridor. Richard announced that in his opinion they should not give way to panic; all they could say for certain was that it was an infection with inguinal complications; and it was dangerous, in science as in life, to jump to conclusions. Old Castel, who was calmly chewing his yellow moustache, turned his clear eyes towards Rieux. Then he looked benevolently over the rest of the company and announced that he knew very well it was plague, but that, of course, if they were to acknowledge the fact officially, they would have to take stern measures. He knew that, underneath, this was what held his colleagues back and as a result, not to upset them, he was quite willing to state that it was not plague. The Prefect got annoyed and said that in any event that was not a sensible approach.
“The important thing,” Castel said, “is not whether the approach is sensible, but whether it gets us thinking.”
As Rieux had said nothing, they asked his opinion.
“It’s an infection, similar to typhoid, but with swelling of the lymph nodes and vomiting. I lanced some of the bubos. In that way I was able to have an analysis made in which the laboratory thinks it can detect the plague bacillus. However, to be precise, we must say that certain specific modifications of the microbe do not coincide with the classic description of plague.”
Richard emphasized that this meant they should not rush to judgement and that they would at least have to wait for the statistical result of the series of analyses, which had begun a few days earlier.
“When a microbe,” Rieux said after a brief silence, “is capable of increasing the size of the spleen four times in three days, and of making the mesenteric ganglia the size of an orange and the consistency of porridge, that is precisely when we should rush to do something. The sources of infections are multiplying. At this rate, if the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months. Therefore it doesn’t matter whether you call it plague or growing pains. All that matters is that you stop it killing half the town.
Richard felt that they should not paint too black a picture, and that in any case there was no proof of contagion since the relatives of his patients were still unaffected.
When Dr Richard appears in the novel, I can’t help but picture Dominic Cummings.
“But others have died,” Rieux pointed out. “And, of course, contagion is never absolute, because if it were, we should have endless exponential growth and devastating loss of population. It’s not a matter of painting a black picture; it’s a matter of taking precautions.”
Picture Boris Johnson being told this, back in February/early March. We know what he said, don’t we?
However, Richard thought he could sum the situation up by saying that if they were to halt the disease, assuming it did not stop of its own accord…
Herd immunity, anybody?
… they had to supply the serious preventive health measures provided for in law; that, to do so, they would have to acknowledge officially that there was an outbreak of plague; …
And isn’t this exactly what Johnson brought in after his (and Cummings’) herd immunity nonsense was shown up for what it was?
… that there was no absolute certainty on that score; and consequently that they should consider the matter.
Richard hesitated and looked at Rieux.
“Sincerely, tell me what you think: are you certain that this is plague?”
“You’re asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of vocabulary, but a matter of time.”
“Your opinion, then,” said the Prefect, “is that even if this is not plague, then the preventive health measures that would be appropriate in the event of plague ought none the less to be applied?”
“If I really must have an opinion, then that is it.”
Wouldn’t the UK be in a far better situation now if, when the government was still arguing over whether and how Covid-19 was affecting the nation, it had adopted the appropriate preventive health measures in good time – as (for example) New Zealand did?
(I note in the news today that New Zealand appears to have eliminated Covid-19 entirely).
As it is, in the novel, no decision is reached (just as, in the UK, Johnson didn’t impose the appropriate preventive measures).
In the midst of general annoyance, Rieux left. A few moments later, in a suburb which smelled of frying oil and urine, a woman screaming to death, her groin covered in blood, was turning her face to him.
The day after the conference, the Prefecture print up some posters and post them in “the least obtrusive corners of the town”. These posters play down the seriousness of the situation but suggest preventive measures which, “if they were interpreted and applied in the proper way… would put a definite stop to any threat of epidemic”.
It advised the inhabitants to observe the most rigorous hygiene…
Remember when Boris Johnson was telling us all to wash our hands and keep our hands away from our faces?
In addition, it was obligatory for families to declare any cases diagnosed by the doctor and agree to isolation of their patients…
(In fact, in the book, it’s isolation in special hospital wards – but these soon fill up.)
Rieux had a meeting with Castel. The serum had not arrived.
That’s like PPE, and ventilators, of course.
The measures that had been taken were insufficient, that was quite clear. As for the ‘specially equipped wards’, he knew what they were: two outbuildings hastily cleared of other patients, their windows sealed up and the whole surrounded by a cordon sanitaire. If the epidemic did not stop of its own accord, it would not be defeated by the measures that the local administration had dreamed up.
Is this not parallel with the situation in the UK, right before the lockdown was announced?
Sure enough, in three days the two buildings were full.
Richard thought that they could requisition a school and provide an auxiliary hospital.
Nightingale hospitals, anyone?
As the plague progresses, the Prefect decides to seek instructions from the State government, so Rieux provides a report that could be sent along with a request for instructions, in which he includes a clinical description, and statistics.
The Prefect steps up measures being taken:
Houses of sick people were to be closed and disinfected, their relatives put in preventive quarantine…
I take it back. This is self-isolation!
Oh, and the serum turns up! There’s enough for the cases currently being treated, but not if the epidemic were to spread. In response to Rieux’s telegram, he’s told the emergency supply is exhausted and that they have started to manufacture new stocks.
And that’s exactly like the situation with PPE and ventilators!
At more or less this point, the Prefect receives an official telegram:
DECLARE A STATE OF PLAGUE STOP
CLOSE THE TOWN.
The similarites between the book and our life, here in the UK, now, are striking, aren’t they?
We may conclude that Johnson and his government had plenty of warning about what would happen if a pandemic infection hit the UK and they were not prepared for it.
Johnson himself is supposed to be literate, so why didn’t he have the sense to heed the warning of this novel? I studied it as a teenager so he has no excuse.
The author is French and Johnson is a notorious racist.
Great resume of the book. Not read ‘The Hunchback’ yet. Too busy on my allotments.
Mike Sivier said:
There’s a lot more to the book than that! I was just recounting the similarities between the failures of our government and those of the authorities in the book. I’ll look at a different aspect another time.