The COVID-19 plague
By Michael O. Stevens
Last February, I took an early train to New York City. It was a different time. The World Health Organization hadn’t yet declared the novel coronavirus COVID-19 a global pandemic. New York, the eventual epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, hadn’t yet shut down all nonessential business. The train was crowded. It was business as usual.
Reclined in a window seat, I was listening to the audiobook of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Camus is my favorite writer. I even quoted him in my wedding vows. When the coronavirus was spreading from China to Europe at the beginning of the year, according to French and Italian reports, sales of The Plague spiked, and those reports persuaded me to revisit the novel, which is about an outbreak of bubonic plague in an unimpressive town in northern Algeria.
The train pulled into Penn Station and the WiFi got spotty. I overheard a brief conversation between two women behind me. One of the women mentioned the coronavirus. The other woman, who said she worked in a hospital, dismissed the threat of the virus. Echoing statements from several American officials, she said, “Trust me. The flu is much worse.”
It’s striking how relevant Camus’ 73-year-old novel still is for our modern era. Camus depicted initial efforts by authorities to dismiss or downplay the seriousness of the epidemic, followed by those same authorities ordering lockdowns and quarantines. He portrayed price gouging, superstitious remedies, widespread desperation and death; but Camus focused on the heroic acts of health care workers fighting against the plague with what he described as the only means possible: “common decency.”
The same day I was on that Manhattan-bound train, President Donald Trump held a press conference where he touted the federal response to the virus in the U.S. He said thanks to his administration’s preparations, “the risk to the American people remains very low.” Trump said only 15 people in the U.S. were infected with COVID-19. He later added that “the 15 within a couple days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” However, one month later, before the contagion reached its peak in the U.S., over 150,000 Americans were infected and almost 3,000, including more than 1,000 New Yorkers, were dead from COVID-19. By the end of April, the virus had killed almost 60,000 Americans.
Riding the train back home along the Hudson River that February evening, passing through small, struggling cities and sparse, snow-covered towns, I was comfortable and indifferent to the warning Camus issues at the end of The Plague. As the novel concludes, the disease leaves as abruptly as it arrived. The lockdown is ended, and the town residents celebrate. However, Dr. Rieux, the book’s protagonist, ominously notes that “such joy is always imperiled,” because plague can lie dormant for years (“it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves”) before reemerging.
Two weeks after I stepped off that train, the world was imbued with a new plague. Amtrak cancellations increased 300% and bookings were cut in half. Most of New York, indeed most of the world, shut down and did its best to hide from the virus.
Like many, I’m now working from home, hoping to prevent or slow the spread of the virus, feeling a strange blend of shock and sadness, and suppressing fear that someone I love will become infected. I’ve barely left my house in weeks. I’m unshaven and I need a haircut. I’m eager to reconnect with family, friends, and colleagues. I’m also thinking a lot about another character in The Plague, a journalist named Rambert.
Rambert is a Parisian who happens to be on assignment in the northern Algerian town when the outbreak occurs. He becomes separated from his wife by a government lockdown. He appeals to several officials, requesting authority to travel home, but he is derailed by bureaucracy. He schemes with smugglers, hoping to find an unauthorized route back to his wife, but he’s unsuccessful. His conscience eventually encourages him to join the fight against the plague and assist Dr. Rieux.
After the lockdown is finally lifted, Rambert waits on a train platform, anxious to reunite with his wife, and worried about how their separate experiences may affect their relationship. “For the moment,” Camus wrote, “he wished to behave like all those around him who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men’s hearts.”
I wonder whether COVID-19 will actually change any of our hearts; if the commonality most of us now feel will persist, or if we’ll resort to our old disconnected habits and routines when our lockdown is over. What lessons will we learn? What, if any, adjustments will we make, and how will our future change?
COVID-19 is an express train that we’re all riding together, and none of us know its destination. Wealth and status provide better accommodations and safety for some, but all of us onboard face danger. All of us are anxious, antsy, afraid, and obligated to remain decent.
Michael O. Stevens is from Albany, New York. In 2005, he earned a Master of Education. He relocated to South Florida in 2007 but returned to the Capital Region in 2012. Michael has published several pieces in the Albany Times Union. He is married and has one child, a daughter.