Pandemics of the past. Clues to the future?

The current Coronavirus pandemic is one of a series of widespread health disasters our world has experienced, so I recently began reading two historical novels about plagues: A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel DeFoe, and The Plague, by Albert Camus.

Defoe was only five when, in 1665, the bubonic plague swept London, killing 100,000 people. The narrator of his story, H.F., offers his observations while he wanders the dirty streets of London. At the time of writing, the origins of “The Great Plague” were unknown, resulting in the exploration of some of the major themes of the period: religion, superstition, and the nature of disease and death. We now know it was usually transmitted through the bite of infected rat fleas. Like all historic novelists, DeFoe blends facts with what he imagines, but it’s still thought to be the best account of this plague.

I could relate to H.F. as a businessperson. His profession was saddlery, working with merchants who traded in the English colonies in America. When his older brother urged him to flee to the country, first his responsibilities kept him in London. Although single, he was responsible for a family of servants, a house, shop, and warehouse. As the number of deaths mounted, he made unsuccessful attempts to leave the city, and finally decided to stay, believing that providence was hindering those efforts. At the end of his account, H.F. observes that the people who survive are starting to be less thankful than they ought to be and are already beginning to practice their evil ways again.

If you’re interested in reading this book online, it’s available as an eBook (for free) through Project Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm.

The Plague, by philosopher and journalist, Albert Camus, is a novel set in Oran, a coastal town in North Africa, about the outbreak of the bubonic plague in North Africa in the 1940s. The setting is a rather otherwise ordinary town, a large port on the Algerian coast. With illness and death afflicting the good and the bad, and society and its institutions breaking down, Camus’ Absurdism philosophy shows the conflict between the human tendency to seek value and meaning in life and the human inability to find it in a chaotic, irrational world. In part, it’s an historical allegory of the German occupation of France during World War II. The narrator is a reporter/historian, bearing witness to the plague-ridden people to memorialize them. One of the websites where you can find the full text of this book is https://archive.org/details/plague02camu/page/n11/mode/2up.

These are both thought-provoking books as we consider how the countries afflicted by the coronavirus epidemic have responded, what lifestyle changes we have made to cope with it, and what our new “normal” might look like when it is no longer a threat. What changes do you think will have long-lasting impact on the choices we make moving forward? Please let me know what you think.

Pandemics of the Past

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