Chronicles of Pandemics: In Retrospect of Literature

This worldwide pandemic is certainly not the first. Nor will it be the last. Amidst such a disheartening and isolated situation, one always turns to literature and art to come in terms with reality. When we put our current situation in context, it invites dark thoughts and scenes of the other pandemics that are recorded in literature.

The works that readily come to mind are of course Albert Camus’s The Plague. A bleak parable illustrating the human condition. But the plague is not just an allegory; it is also the tale of a devastating natural calamity. Dr. Bernard Rieux decides to stay back in Oran to tend to the sick, accepting a life of exile and imprisonment, which is the inherent fallout of every pandemic. Like the French army marching into Algeria, the plague descends on the Algerian town of Oran. The plague – rules out any future, cancels journey and silences the exchange of views. The novel tells us that “no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” Camus writes at the beginning of the novel that – everybody knows…pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our head from a blue sky. 

The response to any pandemic has always been denial, with the state playing down the number of fatalities to conceal the seriousness of the situation. Similar to what happened in the early days of the Great Plague in London in 1664. Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ testifies to the common practice of the state spreading misinformation and bending the media to fit its interests. And we see this reflecting in the present situation of the COVID-19 crisis.

Some similar patterns that we can trace right now are – the U.S denouncing China for the spread of COVID, the KGB holding the US responsible for the spread of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, etc. Nearly two millennia ago, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius held the Christians culpable for the smallpox affliction in his empire. During successive plagues, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells of Europe. Defoe underscores the bigotry and xenophobia that lies beneath this tendency.

The pandemic affects the rich and the poor equally. “The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowed abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin,” writes Mary Shelley in her dystopian sci-fi novel, The Last Man, 1826. This is the story of plague in Constantinople in 2092, lasting a year and returning in the spring in a more malicious avatar. People start rushing to the churches, temples, and mosques to appease the Gods, while the government focuses on making suitable decisions and taking action. Human achievements in the fields of science and technology, arts and commerce keep declining. In the end, the narrator, wandering in the ruins of Rome, comes across a manuscript in Italian and decides to write a book dedicated to the dead, titled The History of the Last Man. Jack London then modeling his plot on Mary Shelley’s novel, wrote his post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague in 1912.

All these above-mentioned novels prove that history repeats itself. And only literature can fight back with a dream of an equitable world, where healthcare is a right and not a privilege. Government transparency is a justified expectation and not a pipe dream. These novels also normalize a pandemic and its repercussions, reminding us how this will keep happening as long as humans live.

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