“What would you do if the plague hit here and our city was quarantined?” I ask my students every semester at Concordia University, St. Paul. We read Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” a fictional retelling of a bubonic plague outbreak in 1940s Algeria, along with the introduction to Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” a nonfiction recount of the plague devastating Florence in the 1300s. Strangely, human reaction has changed very little.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, many of the reactions are surprisingly similar, despite this virus being far less deadly. Of course the government tells everyone this is just a minor illness and to “JUST STAY CALM!!” Nothing to see here! Keep shopping.
When the outbreak hits in “The Plague,” the gates of the city come down and stay closed indefinitely. Everyone must face the reality that this quarantine with other sick people could be a death sentence. Denial leads to panic that leads to desperation, which leads to grim acceptance and gallows humor. Prejudice leads to blaming innocent scapegoats.
Now that our student spring break trip to Italy has been canceled due to COVID-19, the question of how we’d react is painfully poignant. Meanwhile, Italian friends in northern Italy are quarantined in ghost towns. Chiara, who teaches at the British school in Milan, wrote, “Yes! Camus’ Plague and The Decameron, it seems exactly a bit like that!”
What’s your plan if disease hits? Last week, the students wrote on the whiteboard their initial reaction to how they’d react if we were suddenly quarantined on campus.
• “Run!” “Leave anyway.” “Let it happen, just kidding, run! I’m slow though.” This is just like the character Rambert, a visiting journalist who suddenly finds himself trapped in a plague-infested city. He is convinced this disease isn’t his problem and pays the criminal Cottard to smuggle him out of the city. Rambert wonders if his family and friends back home will welcome him if he arrives infected. He faces his demons and stays in the city realizing that we’re all in this together.
• “I’ll trash this place.” “Steal snacks from the vending machine and lock myself in the bathroom.” “Lock myself in the dining hall.” Ah, the criminal element comes out, but at least the students are honest about their possible corruption. In “The Plague,” the immoral Cottard thrives during the quarantine, since law and order have broken down. When the disease recedes and he must face the law, he barricades himself in and starts shooting. Not good.
• “Do all of my homework.” “Get caught up on homework.” Were my students just trying to get in good with their teacher, me?
• “Party every day.” “Can I have liquor on campus?” In “The Decameron,” society crumbles since the end is nigh, or so they think. How do you face yourself after the debauchery if you survive?
• “Probably isolate myself.” “Avoid all people.” “Lock myself in my room with food and water.” If the quarantine is just 14 days, this might be OK, but ultimately we need other people to survive and retain our humanity.
• “NETFLIX!” “Ask for my PS4.” (PlayStation 4, I learned.) “Stay on my phone all the time.” (How is this different from any other day for the students? I asked.) Actually this reaction is the same as the 10 characters in “The Decameron” who steal away to a villa in the Tuscan hills to wait out the end of the disease. To pass the time, they take turns telling wild, hilarious stories and forget the grim situation outside their doors.
• One student reaction that is noticeably absent, but prevalent in both stories, is prayer and penitence. The priest in “The Plague” believes this is a pestilence sent by God and refuses to believe that science can save them. His certainty is put to the test, however, when he sees the meaningless suffering of a young boy. Ultimately, the priest dies of doubt.
In the end, the students realize that the hero of “The Plague” is a stoic, steady doctor who is viewed as the grim reaper when he knocks at the door to give the bad news. He persists and insists that medicine and a cool head will save the city in the face of this absurdity.
Camus raises the ultimate question that we must ask ourselves: What are we made of? Will we run and risk infecting others? Will we hide away only to reappear when all is well? Will we eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die? Or will we do the work required and face this fascist scourge?
The final, tantalizing sentence of Camus’ sums it up: “… the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good … 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 its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Eric Dregni is an English professor at Concordia University, St. Paul. He is the author of “Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy’s Culinary Capital” and “You’re Sending Me Where?: Dispatches from Summer Camp.”