In Albert Camus’ La Peste, the arrival of the plague in a sleepy Algerian city functions as an allegory for occupation by a malign military force, an extended tract on the blunt and powerful fact of suffering and misery, but also, a very useful and illuminating handbook for the consequences of the spread of a deadly disease.
In the final pages of the book, as the town is declared to be rid of the virus, Camus leaves the reader with a clear message, forcefully delivered.
“And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.
“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
Taking this message as seriously as a deadly pandemic, I have compiled a list of resources you can draw on for insights into disease, quarantine, and the current Covid-19 outbreak, which will hopefully help you cope with what is set to be a torrid year.
1. The Plague – Albert Camus
Camus’s 1947 novel is the beautifully crafted personal memoir of an Algerian doctor, Rieux, who happens to be living in Oran when it is subjected to a long quarantine after an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
He spends much of his time with ‘obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities’: a career bureaucrat struggling to make it past the first sentence of the novel he’s drafting; a young journalist from Paris, separated from his fiancée by the quarantine; the doorman of his apartment building; his suicidal upstairs neighbour.
It chronicles the hardships they face, the ways they find they are forced to moderate their behaviours, and the wide range of reactions to being told to quarantine. Some of the citizens of Oran try mightily to carry on as normal, despite the mounting evidence that this is a fool’s errand. Rieux’s young journalist friend forges links to a criminal gang who have promised to smuggle him out of the city.
The local priest of course has all the answers. This is God’s vengeance on a community that had fallen away from Him. There is a rash of arson as some particularly distressed townspeople begin burning their houses and all of their possessions in an ill-advised attempt to purify their surroundings of bacteria.
This is a brilliant, potted analysis of the approaches to disease isolation and containment, the ethics of social distancing, the practicalities of defending oneself from an invisible enemy, and the suite of reactions that epidemics can prompt among people.
2. Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood
Narrated by Snowman, who appears to be the last living person in the wake of a devastating plague, Atwood’s 2003 novel continues the tradition of using disease as a prompt for existentialist musings, and the effects of isolation.
As starvation sets in, Snowman decides he must undertake a dangerous supply run to the headquarters of the company he once worked for, and reveals the details of the pandemic that wiped out humanity via a series of flashbacks.
The lasting message of this book and its companion pieces – it is one entry in Atwood’s MaddAddam series – is that private entities do not have your best interests at heart. Profit motives are configuring society so that money should be made no matter what the human cost.
Snowman looks back on his boyhood, when a small group of financially elite scientists and military men spent every working moment enriching their own lives in tiny compounds, while outside the walls, the bulk of society starved and fought internecine gang wars in slums.
As well as being a fun read, this novel may put the pandemic we are facing in some welcome perspective, and hopefully demonstrate over again the obvious need for a robust public health service.
3. The Stand – Stephen King
This is a long and sprawling read, but if you can’t find the time in quarantine, when can you? There is also a passable film adaptation if you really can’t bring yourself to read this one. King’s book follows a number of characters, foremost among them, a worker at King’s fictional equivalent for the Centre for Disease Control.
The novel follows the steady decline through a pandemic into the rebuilding and reordering of society by a few stalwart Americans, who have found themselves immune to the deadly virus of the day.
This is really a novel about the formulation of society under circumstances under which one citizen might normally hate one another, but under which co-operation is mandated by unfortunate events.
Civil disagreement runs rampant, but society eventually reboots. Silly plot points ruin the overall effect for this reader: at one point, Satan himself is inserted into the action, and the ending is typically King-esque (read: bad).
However, as a study of the effects of disease upon global populations, it is informative, and it does reward the attentions of a casual reader.
4. I am Legend – Richard Matheson
This novel is brilliantly well written, but perhaps most significant for spawning the zombie tradition as we know it in cinema. Don’t bother watching Will Smith’s I am Legend; only one or two scenes in that film have stood the test of time, while the novel remains both influential, and a satisfying reader experience.
It is quite an everyday gothic novella about vampires, but concerns itself with higher political ideas about the morality of regarding groups that one is unfamiliar with as immoral or uncivilised as a matter of course.
The Will Smith movie adds a new valence to the idea that pandemics alter significantly once one ends up a member of the immune minority, while Matheson’s book, again, concentrates on the dynamics involved in witnessing a pandemic from the point of view of a potential victim.
The novel is far more resonant under the current circumstances, partly because the novel’s antagonists are sentient, while the enemies in the film are unthinking zombies. Speaking of which…
5. Dawn of the Dead – George A. Romero
This is one of the finest filmic depictions of a viral outbreak ever created. Growing up, this anti-consumerist allegory was always my favourite zombie film.
However, there were always a couple of problems I had with it. It appeared to be set three weeks into the spread of the zombie virus, and yet, the film opened in a news room which contained interns throwing stacks of papers over an expert claiming that the only solution to the problem facing the planet was to kill the infected.
I remember watching these scenes and wondering how anyone could ignore such expert advice: having seen a deadly global outbreak, I know now there are two problems with this scene. First of all, after three weeks, it seems unlikely there would be any interns hurling around handy substitutes for toilet roll.
Second, after three weeks in which it was entirely plain that victims of the disease were becoming cannibalistic, I dread to think what government policy would have been. It seems now entirely likely that certain experts would have been deprived of their right to advise the public without an inept government acting as a proxy. If you only watch one film on this list, I’d make it this one.
6. Fear the Walking Dead
This The Walking Dead spin-off was never necessarily better than its parent series The Walking Dead, based in turn on the comic series. However, while The Walking Dead begins with the protagonist awaking from a coma weeks after the initial outbreak, Fear the Walking Dead’s first season realistically depicts the initial reaction of a neo-liberal population to the outbreak of a deadly virus.
Contagion was released in 2011 to generally favourable reviews, and there has been an unsurprising uptick recently in its online streaming figures. Coincidentally, Contagion’s fictional MEV-1 virus was also traced to Chinese food preparation; the first super-spreader caught the virus from a chef in Hong Kong.
Another interesting parallel can be drawn between Jude Law’s paranoid blogger, who amasses a huge following by spreading misinformation and hawking snake-oil miracle cures. I remember not buying this subplot in 2011, yet just this month, conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones was sent a cease-and-desist order for touting coronavirus busting toothpastes and diet supplements.
MEV-1 is far deadlier than Covid-19, with 1 in 12 affected and a mortality rate of 25%, which shakes out to a global death tally of almost 200m. In reality, viruses contracted by 1 in 12 people are rarely that deadly.
8. The Knowledge Project #78 with Balaji Srinivasan
The Knowledge Project is hosted by Shane Parrish, a former Canadian spy with an enquiring mind. Every week, he hosts someone new, and given the recent outbreak, he recently interviewed an expert on the ongoing pandemic of Covid-19.
Balaji Srinivasan is not a medical expert, but taught bioinformatics at Stanford and has written papers in microbial genomics. He gave a broad overview of the problems faced by global governments since the outbreak, how certain countries are coping, and what can be done by individuals to reduce the chances of contracting the virus, or passing it on to somebody else.
If you have unanswered questions about this virus and disease, from the biology of viral microbes to whether or not to bulk-buy hand sanitiser, this podcast will probably answer them.
Srinivasan also makes some predictions about the long-term effects of the disease on society and infrastructure which seem to border on science-fiction. Some things he is watching out for is a surge in the popularity of e-sports, using virtual reality technology to do office work from home, and the coming of age of the internet.
9. Making Sense with Sam Harris #190 with Nicholas Christakis
Neuroscientist Sam Harris is joined by Professor Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, who is known for his research on social networks, biosocial science, and public health. The pair discuss the new virus, methods of transmission, strategies for mitigating its impact, and the effects it’s having on different countries.
The most interesting part of this discussion is the ways in which the right wing’s recent refusal to trust the opinions of experts has damaged their ability to take the necessary precautions and treat this pandemic with a reasonable degree of alarm.
They also spend some time debunking the myth that this is in any way similar to the flu.
10. Daily Podcasts
If you are looking for a way to get quick news updates from day to day, keeping up with some daily podcasts is generally a good way of doing it. I check in with The Daily by the New York Times, Today in Focus by The Guardian, and The Intelligence by The Economist.
Since certain countries declared quarantines, these podcasts have tended to cover the outbreak most days.
If all this virus media is getting you down, be sure to take a break, and check out Emma Morgan’s list of the best entertainment to take your mind off the pandemic, and hopefully, cheer you up a bit. While it’s important to understand the virus and measures that can be taken against it, it’s also important to take care of your morale, and not spend too much time with a single subject.