Donald Trump may be (outwardly) the most powerful COVID denier in the world, but he is not the only one. Denialism runs deep inside the minds of people, whether due to their distorted allegiance to rationality (or rationalization) or thanks to the conditioned privilege of not encountering catastrophes on a daily basis before the disaster kicks their doors open and tells them to wake up. In Camus’s The Plague, we encounter denialism through witnessing the plague unravel from the perspective of Dr. Rieux, who unmasks the reality of the sickness taking over the French-Algerian city of Oran.
Figure 1. Variations in the book cover for Albert Camus’ The Plague
Figure 2. First and last cover unfolded from the 1955 edition in the “Pocket Book” of Albert Camus’ novel “La peste.” ‘L’un des plus grands romans de notre epoque,’ is translated to ‘One of the greatest novels of our time.’ / Â © Gusman / Leemage
Among the many book covers (Fig. 1) of Albert Camus’ The Plague, the one at the bottom left corner, a 1955 version from the first paperback publication of the author’s work (Fig. 2), seems to best reflect the environment where the plague of denialism can spread among the denizens. The pastel roofs of the houses in the city Oran, painted lightly in blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, etc., aptly corresponds to how the town is pictured by Camus, with “a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning,” where “all seemed well” (58). The soft colors belie how at the beginning the people of the city take the progression of the plague ‘lightly,’ in the tranquility that is “so casual and thoughtless [that it] seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague,” allowing the rats, as depicted in the cover, to infiltrate the town, just as soldiers during the war would conduct their surprise-attacks (39). Rats aside, the optimistic colors of the city are in contrast with the foreboding figure in the foreground. Could the figure be an anthropomorphized representation of a plague, a secondary one that is birthed by the epidemic of denialism? Why is the figure positioned at the outside of Oran, as if he is a foreigner to the city?
The figure of the plague is always a migrant, someone that arrives from abroad, rather than something in the population itself. That’s true for COVID- it jumped from animals to humans, a taxonomic leap that destabilized the entire human colony on earth. Yet barring the foreigner from entry is the most appealing tactic in a time of plague- that’s the first, measly step President Trump took to stem the flow of the contagion in February, and he focused only on China. That was never going to be sufficient, but the denier in chief of the US thought it would be enough. Denialism is no foreigner to us.
This previous conveners post touches upon denialism in society in The Plague through framing it as a “conflict between confidence and fear”, highlighted in the interaction between the authorities and the doctors and the reluctance to alarm people about the pestilence in concern of spreading fear. Adding to this previous conveners post, it is crucial to account for the dynamics between doctors and political authorities, and the roles each assume (which are still concerningly relevant to this day), described accurately in the following excerpt:
“… It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions.”
While doctors are concerned with protecting citizens and taking the necessary precautions to curb the spread of a contagion, authorities, in their PR-full roles, worry about image, response, and appeal. With a clash in intent and concern, citizens are often left in a state of confusion caused by a lack of information (and the abundance of misinformation). This could lead to difficulty in understanding the true extent of the plague, even when presented with numbers and official notices.
“And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. ”We see similar issues taking place today with how people are becoming numb to COVID death counts, despite more creative efforts in explaining to the populace how many people have died. COVID no longer surprises us. COVID is no longer a foreigner.
I think this is a really interesting interpretation of the book. We see this especially at the beginning of Part 3, with the line “The greatest of these [feelings shared by all] were feelings of separation and exile, with all that that involved of fear and rebellion.”
The anxieties produced by the situation meant that while everyone was bound to be alone from the rest of the world, they were also living in extremely uncertain times (much like today). Being locked in was making people nervous, with the appearance of even “innocent pyromaniacs” who would burn their house down just to get away from the Plague. It became a horror that covered everyone and everything, and it was nearly impossible to get away from, much like how colonialism would take over every aspect of life. Many around the world gave up their lives struggling to rid their land of the pestilence that is colonialism