Back in March The Plague by Albert Camus appeared on every list of books to read during the lockdown. I finally opened my copy of the book last week and read it in a couple of sittings.
The Plague was released in 1947. The book imagines bubonic plague striking the town of Oran on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria in northern Africa.
Algeria is Albert Camus' home country, although the book is written from France when it was under Nazi occupation during WWII. There, Camus was housed in a mountain village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, famous as a secret wartime refuge for Jews on the run. Camus was recuperating from bouts of tuberculosis. Clearly, he had rich material to draw on.
Not surprisingly, The Plague is seen as a political commentary on life in France under Nazi rule. But seven decades on I read it for its literal meaning, to see what it could tell me about how people respond to deadly disease in their midst, and about what happens when the disease departs.
There are clear parallels between now and the imaginary lockdown in Oran. In both instances, early prospects for a vaccine give false hope, everyone supports the need for strict quarantining but no-one agrees on how, the need for well-resourced medical services is obvious but these are stressed to breaking point nevertheless, and an early-days generosity of spirit is smashed by selfishness and opportunism.
And, most obviously, in Oran in the 1940s and across the world in 2020, as the months are endured, there is yearning for return to normal life.
There are stark differences, however, between plague-stricken Oran and real-life COVID-19.
For Oran, the plague is only inside the town, its walls tightly patrolled. While the world outside was plague-free, those inside seemed condemned - unless a cure can be found.
For COVID-19, the problem is everywhere. For a time, the virus seemed manageable. In mid-year, Australia gloated we had it under control, that the problem persisted only in other places. Now we know it's a global pandemic that leaps city walls, state borders, vast oceans.
Geography doesn't give us immunity.
There are clear parallels between now and the imaginary lockdown in Oran.
For Oran, the plague would be controllable when a vaccine for the bacteria was formulated, the science was straight forward. But for COVID-19, a rare virus, the science for a vaccine is unproven.
Yet in Oran, plague kills indiscriminately, while for COVID-19 most of the infected never receive a lethal dose. But less so the elderly, especially the elderly with other health problems.
So COVID-19 throws up political arguments about population control that Oran's plague avoids. The plague kills all it infects. Be careful what you wish for.
The great similarity between Oran's plague and COVID-19 is the confinement. We become prisoners, says Camus, in exile at home, normally a place of great joy, but now a place of deep suffering caused by separation and death.
Unlike COVID-19, we know how the plague in Oran ends. Predictably, there is celebration in the town when authorities announce the city walls will open.
But celebrations are muted.
For the many, says Camus, there is little other than relief. Away from those who send laughter through the streets at night, there are private tears, "... for the mother torn from her son or for the man who buries his friend."
For families where there was death, especially, a return to normal life is an impossible idea.
And, then, what for Oran in the years ahead? There is no great reward, no special dividend, says Camus. Life is resumed in Oran, but it comes, as life does, with its "reticence and restrictions". The plague gave the illusion that normal life could be something much more than it is.
Early in COVID-19 much was said about the lessons that the virus might teach us, that this could be a time when humans commit to the achievement of something greater, where there could be priority for the common good over personal gain.
But such sentiments seem now to have disappeared and in their place is rising discord.
Indeed, the level of disharmony in Australia and around the world might become more than a little scary if COVID-19 runs deep into 2021.