La Peste, a novel written by Albert Camus, was published in 1947. Camus was born in Algeria of French parents and in 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I read La Peste when I was based in Switzerland in 1997. I found it to be one of those books impossible to forget.
The novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran and tells the story of an imaginary plague that hit the city and follows its effect on a wide range of characters. It documents the apathy of a local government in denial, followed by the panic when the reality of their situation hit and the city was blockaded with nobody allowed to leave. Then followed the numbness and resignation.
The story of La Peste very much reminds me of what is probably happening today in Whuhan and many other cities in China. In La Peste, blockading the relatively small city was not a challenge. But how do you blockade a city of some eleven million, a population the size of London and several similar other Chinese cities? By the time the government realised the seriousness of the situation, the virus had already spread to other parts of the country, and in some isolated cases to other countries. And what effect will freedom of movement have on the Chinese and world economy?
No doubt the western media will fasten onto this situation and keep us current with their constant ‘Breaking News’, with their breathless reports and speculations from the bedside of the hospitals of the infected.
But we have to remember that epidemics and pandemics have always been with us, some extremely serious, as the Spanish Flu of 1918-19: by the end of 1919 at least 50 million people had died, about 3% of the world population at that time.
With the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, it seems to me to be quite probable that we will one day experience another pandemic. Let’s hope that it is not that which is bubbling in China.