Plague and Pandemic, 2020 and Thence

James L. Robertson

Article by James L. Robertson Featured Author


No sooner had the Western World’s calendar turned the page to the month of January, and to the beginning of the new year 2020, when American disease control patrons learned of “an unexplained respiratory virus emerging in the great city of Wuhan,” geographically embedded well within Asia and more particularly in south central China. 1 Not since the 1918 Influenza pandemic 2 had the people of this planet seen the likes of such, much less of the circumstances soon to follow via the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without surprise, George Fu Gao, who at that moment in time headed the Chinese Center for Disease Control — and who, when pressured, in the face of all facts highly unpopular politically in their time and setting — assured one and all “that there was then no evidence of human-to-human transmission” 3 amongst the species homo sapiens or within the relevant Chinese political and social environs, nor would there likely be such evidence within the foreseeable future.

Well aware that the proverbial jaundiced eye, and the skeptical “hmmmmmm???” were and would remain of considerable communicable value in such settings, Robert Redfield, director of the U. S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, gathered several dozen CDC specialists and formally asked the Chinese government and officialdom for permission to pay a visit to the Wuhan area and its environs, and to take a look around.

Silence. Inactivity. 4 Nothing.

Only a few days later, however, visiting with Redford in another setting altogether, the talk led Gao to the point where he almost began to cry. “I think we’re too late.” 5

The truth be known, the dreaded virus had been circulating in China since the previous November, and, as well, in this country, and in states such as California, Oregon and Washington. And it would likely soon be spreading as far away as, and into, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and more centrally to Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. 6 The CDC had unwittingly been relying and acting on false and misleading China-shielded data.

All of this while, former journalist Matthew Pottinger 7 had somehow remained beneath the radar screen within President Donald J. Trump’s White House, in further and differing dimensions of its political and social adventures. 8 Within these same environs, Pottinger was already less than popular. He had become a U.S. deputy national security advisor, and an early champion of masks as shields, arguably adequate to protect otherwise exposed persons from potential ravages as per the said coronavirus.

But there may have been more to be told. A further occasion or two or ten may have reached the interests or concerns of public figures, not altogether unlike these, men such as Redford and Gao and Pottinger. All of this, and while bearing in mind that the French Nobel laureate Albert Camus had enlivened and then penned and published a book about a plague once, as in 1948, touching upon such matters, having more than a few points to make, and thoughts to share.

And, to be sure we’re on the same page in all of this, you should understand that a man of letters, or one learned in the Western literary arts, does not merely “read Camus.” The sort of gentleperson of interest, activity and reflection here “re-reads Camus.” 9

And no matter how often one re-reads Camus, and particularly The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux is there, in the 1940s, in and about the town of Oran, a large French port on the Algerian coast. Then and thereafter, Dr. Rieux, his colleagues and acquaintances, have had much to tell us and to teach us, always have had, and always will have. “One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates of Oran was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it.” 10

Understand one thing. For the most part, Dr. Rieux lived and practiced and taught us in times when the town had been put into legally enforceable quarantine, Mediterranean variety. No one in Oran could leave. Period. No one, male nor female. Nor a soul besides. If a person wandered into Oran, even by mistake, he or she was stuck. For a long, long, very, very long, long time. The aggregate political and public price of Oran’s allowing departure was just too great, even in balance!

Unlike others, Dr. Rieux saw that “[o]nly the law was the law, plague had broken out, and he could only do what had to be done.” 11 Directly addressing Rambert, Dr. Rieux added, “You don’t understand. You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions.” 12

When Dr. Rieux first met the man known as Grand — not without note to be taken — the former explained to the latter the probabilities that the whole town of Oran would soon be a madhouse. Until Rieux began feeling exhausted, that is, and his throat parched, so that he paused. “Let’s have a drink” was Rieux’ timely and remedial admonition to Grand. 13

Understand that Oran’s first onslaught of “the heat synchronized” soon was leading to “nearly seven hundred deaths a week.” 14 “It was plain to see that Spring had spent itself,… now being crushed out by the twofold onslaught of heat and plague.” 15 Then “a hundred and thirty deaths in a day.” 16 “Plague had killed all colors; vetoed pleasure.” 17 And men met, “All shops… shut… Closed, printed on each door, owing to plague.” 18

Upon it being suggested that plagues have their good side, Dr. Rieux reflected, and then responded, “So does every ill flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” 19 In time, another reflection, viz., “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.” 20 On the whole, men “are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything.” 21

Then there was one, a man named Tarrou, and who had vision with insight, that he might “know now that man is capable of great deeds. But that, in and of itself is not enough, and should never be taken as enough, for if a man isn’t capable of a great emotion, well, he leaves me cold,” 22 as he should leave you as well.

Yet plagues and wars still — and always will — take people by surprise. 23

As with most others, “this plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule, everyone, from the warden down to the humblest delinquent, was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in the prison.” 24 “The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration, great misfortunes are monotonous.” 25

As one might readily have expected, Dr. Rieux looked out around him and what he saw were sick people, and that “sick people needed curing.” 26 In plague time, he had become a healer no more, reduced to the role of a diagnostician. Yet in his humility and candor, the good doctor would admit, “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all of this ends.” 27

As per Dr. Rieux and his sense of place, “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.” 28 With his humanity, Dr. Rieux saw “that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a familiar face, and the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.” 29 “For plague is the flail of God and the world, His threshing-floor, and implacably He will flesh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.” 30

Dr. Rieux was a wise and insightful man in many respects. Once Tarrou suddenly said to him, “Who taught you all this, Doctor?” The reply came promptly. “Suffering.” 31

And as with Dr. Rieux, “…you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism… What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 32 Indeed, people “had adapted themselves to the very condition of the plague, all the more potent for its mediocrity. None of us was capable any longer of an exalted emotion; all had [but] trite, monotonous feelings.” 33 “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these.” 34

No part of the plague and its story tugged at the soul more than the fate of the children of Oran, their emerging humanity and that of those whose lives interact. Again and again, Drs. Rieux, Castel and the other faced the mothers. Was the anti-plague serum ready, when they first tried it on M. Othon’s small son, whose case seemed all but hopeless? 35

“Doctor, you will save him, won’t you?” 36 “Rieux gazed down at the child again.” 37 “But – save my son.” 38 “Only the child went on fighting with all his little might.” 39 “Please, God, give him buboes.” 40 “My God, spare this child.” 41

“[W]e see no reason for a child’s suffering.” 42 Yes, there is more. “For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering?” 43

  1. See Lawrence Wright, “ The Plague Year: The mistakes and the struggles behind an American tragedy,” The New Yorker, at 22-59 (Jan. 4 & 8, 2021).
  2. See John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004).
  3. Wright, The Plague Year, at 22.
  4. Id.
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. Yours truly well recalls a get-together and gathering with J. Stanley Pottinger at the San Francisco apartment of Edward Morris Stadium in the summer of 1966. The three of us had been classmates, graduating from the Harvard Law School with the Class of 1965, and we were beginning our careers, imbued with the charge to “make a difference.” See Harvard Law School, Nineteen Sixty Five 110, 111, 117 (Yearbook 1965); Wright, at 33. A generation later, Stanley Pottinger had become Matthew’s father, and Paul’s as well.
  8. Wright, at 23; also at 22, 24, 29, 30, 32, 33, 35, 39, 42, 47, 48, 56 and maybe more. Matthew Pottinger’s brother Paul had become an infectious disease physician, at 24.
  9. See James L. Robertson, “A Fall of Fortuities (A Paean in Memory of John Hampton Stennis),” p. 3;
  10. Camus, The Plague 67 (1948).
  11. Id. at 87.
  12. Id.
  13. Id. at 101.
  14. Id. at 111.
  15. Id. at 113.
  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Id. at 118.
  19. Id. at 125.
  20. Id. at 131.
  21. Id.
  22. Id. at 162.
  23. Id. at 137.
  24. Id. at 169-70.
  25. Id. at 179.
  26. Id. at 127, 193.
  27. Id. at 127.
  28. Id. at 255.
  29. Id. at 261.
  30. Id. at 95.
  31. Id. at 128-29.
  32. Id. at 162.
  33. Id. at 181.
  34. Id. at 167.
  35. Id. at 192.
  36. Id.
  37. Id. at 211.
  38. Id. at 212. The full text prior hereto reads, “Before leaving, Rieux on a sudden impulse asked the Othons if there wasn’t anything they’d like him to do for them. The mother gazed at him in silence. And now the magistrate averted his eyes.”
  39. Id. at 216.
  40. Id. at 226.
  41. Id. at 217.
  42. Id. at 223.
  43. Id. at 224.