“This chronicle is not a story of definitive victory…”
—Albert Camus, The Plague
“There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.”
Iread these words in Albert Camus’ The Plague in March 2014. At that time, it was just another thought-provoking book in my library, dealing with themes of exile, disease, and separation. It was also unbearably slow! I felt reading it lasted for ages and the slow pace of The Plague stuck with me. I thought this feeling had to do with its existential and philosophical themes and decided that just maybe Camus’ books weren’t for me. I went on with my life.
Fast forward to March 2020: Everything happened so fast; countries one after the other went into complete lock down or took “anti-corona measures” by closing cafes, restaurants and schools, and advising people to work from home and to practise social distancing. Alongside SARS-CoV-2, fear and anxiety also spread; for a week I was acting as a “support line” for family and friends, explaining what we know and don’t know about this “new” virus, trying to calm them and advise them on how to best keep themselves safe (as much as possible). At the same time, I realised that if anything happened to my family in Greece, I wouldn’t be able to visit them, because of all the travel restrictions. Such a strange feeling… it almost felt as I was living in exile.
As a student in a group working with Coronaviruses, I must continue going to the lab, and try to work and talk with my colleagues while keeping the appropriate distance, limiting the amount of practical work to the necessary, and doing the rest at home. Studying for a PhD degree is already challenging and stressful enough and this new situation didn’t make it any easier. Even the smallest technical challenge is now overwhelming, because we need to understand as much as we can about this virus and as fast as possible. There are no Mon-days or Sun-days anymore, workdays and weekends have all fused into “days”. Life has changed drastically, even in a country without a total lock down: meeting friends only via Skype has become the new norm.
Luckily, COVID-19 is not comparable with Camus’s Bubonic plague in lethality; I can’t help but think though, that Camus’ descriptions of life slowing down, alongside the feelings of separation, loneliness, agony and uncertainty for the future, now suddenly make sense.
“All that a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory,” Camus concluded. Despite everything, this pandemic will eventually be over! But pandemics will always keep re-appearing and the least we as individuals, policy makers, health-care workers and researchers need to do is to learn from this one and prepare better for the ones yet to come.
Maria Soultsioti is a Greek PhD based in the Netherlands