EXTRA EXTRA: Newspapers in The Plague vs. Present Day International Newspapers
What role do newspapers and social media play in regards to disease? Are they simply social informants or do they have another purpose? In several of the texts we have read so far (Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Ibsen’s Ghosts) newspapers have been the transmitters of social disease, as it is media publications that facilitate the spread of rumour throughout society with a rapidity similar to that of the contagious disease, and with implications that were detrimental in terms of the subsequent behaviour of the citizens. However, the newspapers in Albert Camus’ The Plague play somewhat of a different role, and this difference is highlighted when compared to some of the emotionally charged articles that have been recently published regarding the Ebola epidemic.
In The Plague, when the bubonic plague first infests the town of Oran, the newspapers function as social informants that document the death tallies of rats. They also seek to determine whether the civic authorities have any intention of intervening, or exercising their power, in what can been deemed as an emergency situation, in order to protect the public from this “disgusting infestation” (p.14). They can, in some way, be seen to represent the voice of society, and seem to stand alongside the citizens in regards to questioning to the response of authorities. They are very active during this period before the exact contagion that has infested the city has been identified. However, during the peak of the disease, when the death toll of civilians is increasing exponentially and when hysteria is slowly taking starting to rise, the newspapers fall silent.
This is a complete contrast to the behaviour of newspapers today, as it is during the peak of an epidemic that the journalists are most active. A primary example of this kind of fevered behaviour on the part of newspapers is the reporting on the current Ebola outbreak. Clicking on the following links will direct you to newspaper articles from various countries, which emphasises the absurdity of the silence of the newspapers in The Plague.
In The Plague, as the novel progresses, we see the newspapers slowly begin to increase their activity in regards to reporting about the infestation of the bubonic plague. The newspapers, more specifically The Courier of the Epidemic, aim to “inform…fellow citizens, in a spirit of total objectivity, about the advances or decline in the illness; to provide them with the most authoritative accounts of the future of the epidemic…to sustain the morale of the inhabitants “ (p.91). It is clear from the articles as posted above, that their intentions are not concerned with objectivity and they aim to alarm the public of the epidemic as opposed to being simply informative. The tone used in today’s newspapers seems to instil more panic than it does optimism or morale. It is interesting to note from these newspaper articles that they do not represent the concerns of the society, but instead inform in a way that is highly emotionally charged which elicit fear among the readers, as opposed to endeavouring to inform using facts, while also voicing the concerns of the society, as do the newspapers in novel.
The state of quarantine is seen visibly through the Plague. People get restless and try to escape, longing to see their loved ones and get away from the internal chaos of Oran.
Reading this, I was especially reminded of Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It is about a mass epidemic of unexplained white blindness in an unnamed town, and the social unrest and chaos that arises because of this. The infected are transferred to overcrowded asylums where they are kept in quarantine indefinitely. The government soon forgets about them, not providing food or personal hygiene products for long periods of time. Curiously, the main character, “the doctor’s wife”, as she is referred to in the text, never catches the blindness, despite the fact that she lies and says she does have it to take care of her husband during quarantine. She has close contact with all the infected, and never catches it, much like Dr. Rieux in The Plague.
Quarantine causes major social unrest in both books. There are scenes where people try to flee and are killed by the police force, huge fires and other chaotic situations.
“In fact, what with the heat and the plague, some of our fellow citizens were losing their heads; there had already been some scenes of violence and nightly attempts were made to elude the sentries and escape to the outside world.”
“As a result of the fighting at the gates, in the course of which the police had had to use their revolvers, a spirit of lawlessness was abroad. Some had certainly been wounded in these brushes with the police, but in the town, where, owing to the combined influences of heat and terror, everything was exaggerated, there was talk of deaths. One thing, anyhow, was certain; discontent was on the increase and, fearing worse to come, the local officials debated lengthily on the measures to be taken if the populace, goaded to frenzy by the epidemic, got completely out of hand. The newspapers published new regulations reiterating the orders against attempting to leave the town and warning those who infringed them that they were liable to long terms of imprisonment.”
Similar scenes can be observed in the movie of Blindness linked below:
See 1:22, a scene in which all the blind must escape the asylum because it has caught fire. Looking at the scene they even look like zombies. Once they get to the gates they realize even the guards have fled, leaving them to their own doom if it were not for their own escape.