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Literature and Pandemics

What makes pandemics similar across geographic locations and time is not the presence of germs and viruses but that the human response follows the same pattern. All three literary works inform us that the initial human response to the outbreak is typically one of denial. Furthermore, our response to a pandemic tends to be slow and the authorities often provide false numbers about the infected cases and deaths

Abhik Roy | New Delhi |

As we are confined within the four walls of our homes under lockdown in the wake of Covid-19, literature helps break the barriers, connecting us across different historical periods and time zones with others who have experienced similar tragedies. More importantly, literature shows us that we have a lot in common with others who are from distant lands and different times, encouraging us to appreciate the fact that we are not the only ones who are dealing with the worldwide devastation wrought by the pandemic.

Throughout history, there have been people who have dealt with crises that caused untold suffering. In this op-ed, I will briefly examine three highly influential literary works on pandemics: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and Albert Camus’ The Plague to show the striking similarities between the current Covid-19 pandemic and the historical outbreaks of plagues across time. What makes pandemics similar across geographic locations and time is not the presence of germs and viruses but that the human response follows the same pattern regardless of culture and time.

All three literary works inform us that the initial human response to the outbreak is typically one of denial. Furthermore, our response to a pandemic tends to be slow and the authorities often provide false numbers about the infected cases and deaths in order to either deny the existence of the pandemic or to minimize its impact. In 1722, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, which is still regarded as one of most authoritative and illuminating works of literature on contagion and human behavior. In this book, Defoe describes the bubonic plague of 1665, which wreaked havoc on London in what became known as the Great Plague of London.

According to Defoe, the local authorities in some London neighborhoods tried hard to show the number of plague deaths much lower than the actual numbers by inventing diseases as the recorded cause of death. According to Defoe, the authorities’ figures were always low when the facts on the ground showed something very different: “The next Bill was from the 23rd of May to the 30th, when the Number of The Plague was 17: But the Burials in St Giles’s were 53, a frightful Number! Of whom they set down but 9 of the Plague.” Later it was discovered at least 20 more “were really dead of the plague,” but had been “set down of the Spotted-Feaver or other Distempers, besides others concealed.” Defoe tells us Londoners were subjected to the most aggressive measure taken by the city of London in 1665 by forcing all infected individuals to be locked in their homes with their families even if their family members were not sick.

The lockdown “had very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical,” Defoe acknowledges, “but it was authorised by a law, it had the public good in view as the end chiefly aimed at, and all the private injuries that were done by the putting it in execution must be put to the account of the public benefit.” Defoe’s book emphasizes that the most prevalent way the contagion spread was via asymptomatic individuals who carried it. “It was very sad to reflect how such a person as this,” he writes, “had been a walking destroyer perhaps for a week or fortnight before that; how he had turned those that he would have hazarded his life to save, and had been breathing death upon them, even perhaps in his tender kissing and embracings of his own children.” The relationship between Defoe’s novel and what we are experiencing now is so startingly clear that it feels indeed strange to remember that Defoe was describing a pandemic that happened 355 years ago. In the 1827 novel, The Betrothed, an enormously popular work about the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1630 that killed roughly half of the population of Milan, Verona, and Venice, the Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni, describes the people of Milan’s anger at the official response to the plague. Despite all the medical evidence, the authorities in Milan ignored the threat posed by the disease and even refused to cancel a local prince’s birthday celebration. Manzoni shows how the plague spread rapidly because the restrictions were insufficient, the enforcement was lax, and the local people didn’t bother to heed them. Manzoni shares with us how the general public, medical doctors and even the Tribunal of Health in Milan chose to either ignore or made light of the threat that the plague posed.

According to Manzoni, local people “heard with a smile of incredulity and contempt any who hazarded a word on the danger, or who even mentioned the plague.” A few Italian doctors who had warned of the impending disaster in the form of plague were met with derision or apathy. He writes, “most of the physicians joined with the people in laughing at the unhappy presages and threatening opinions of the smaller number of their brethren.” He reports on how the corrupt government health officials at Milan’s Tribunal of Health chose to actively conceal evidence of the number of cases of the plague by blaming the numbers on other grounds. The medical reports were falsified and concealed by the health officers who were charged with inspecting the dead bodies. Manzoni wrote that wild conspiracy theories were doing the rounds as the scale of infection became impossible to control. The local people of Milan started blaming if not foreign soldiers, then witches, or shadowy “poisoners.”

The strength of The Betrothed lies in educating us about the psychological stages in a pandemic beginning with denial and scapegoating to displacement and, finally, belated recognition of the risks and the panic driven reactions of the public to the pandemic. With the outbreak of Covid-19 worldwide, Albert Camus’ The Plague has become a best seller again after its first publication in 1947. My purpose here is not to write a criticism of the book nor discuss its philosophical aspects. My focus is entirely on some of the major insights from the book as they relate to the Covid-19 pandemic we are facing right now. In The Plague, Camus shows us how, in the 1940s, people in the French Algerian town of Oran failed to prepare for a threat from a plague because most of them simply could not believe that it could happen to them. “It’s impossible it should be the plague, everyone knows it has vanished from the West,” a character says. “Yes, everyone knew that,” Camus adds, “except the dead.” Camus’ The Plague helps us understand that denial is a common reaction to any kind of epidemic or pandemic. We may anticipate mortal sickness in our lifetime.

However, when it strikes us, we tend not to accept it. For Camus, we are always living in the fear of death. At any moment, we could die. Whether there is threat of plague or not, death is inevitable. As he puts it, it’s truly an inescapable “underlying condition.” What Camus is trying to tell us that if we accept the fragility of our lives, there is freedom. It can move us from feelings of angst and helplessness to a state of joy and gratitude. Camus isn’t trying to scare us but he’s preparing us to accept the fact that there can never be safety. There will be a plague or some other epidemic will happen again. This is why it is critically important for us to realize that it is a shared grief and shared struggle that calls for collective action. Camus forces us to think about our responsibilities to the people around us. He draws out the conflict between our pursuit of individual happiness and moral obligation to our fellow beings. The important message in The Plague is that although pandemics have a way of upending our lives, they force us to live in the present moment. Nothing else really matters when our very day-to-day survival is at stake. There’s just the here and now for us, and as the narrator in The Plague, Dr Bernard Rieux, says, “We’re all involved in it.” What Dr Rieux implies is that we should all see ourselves as members of a community and not as atomized individuals. This means when we are combating Covid-19, we simply cannot think selfishly only of ourselves, but we must seriously ponder how our actions will affect others. In The Plague, Dr Rieux is driven by the virtues of empathy, love and solidarity in his fight against the contagion. If we learn these lessons now in our moment of crisis, we may be better off in our fight against Covid-19.

(The writer is professor emeritus of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)