Gil Vitro, 2020 Research Grant Recipient

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the Novel Coronavirus-2019--colloquially shortened to COVID-19--was a pandemic. This was in the wake of thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths all over the world. What had, according to popular myth, started as a flu-like illness which spread through the Wuhan province of China suppressed and unheeded, rapidly expanded into one of the only concerns that anyone could talk about. While the disease was (and is) frightening enough, with wild oscillations in severity and deadliness from individual case to individual case, from nation to nation, fear was further compounded by the response of public health offices and state governments. California was put into an emergency lockdown by Governor Gavin Newsom only days after the WHO’s classification, businesses were closed, unemployment skyrocketed, toilet paper and hand sanitizer disappeared like magic from major supply stores. Amid the turmoil, a legion of epidemiologists and virologists, global health experts, politicians, journalists, podcasters, and priests all took to their various pulpits and began to do what they do best: told stories about what was happening around them and attempted to make sense of it all so that everyone else could know what to do.

            “Attempted” is the key word here.

In reality, the wave of articles and indictments and exhortations and rules and “feel-good” stories did not so much clear our mental beaches of the debris of false information; rather, our senses were flooded, as conflicting reports and retractions and changing policy positions and the 24/7 news cycle completely overran the ability of most people to understand clearly what was happening and what everyone should be doing. Some things were clearer than others--stand 6 feet apart, limit interactions with people outside of your household, wear a mask when in public--but even those edicts could be changed within days, especially early on in the pandemic. Eventually, after a couple of months of daily updates to the world infection, and death tolls and repeated struggles to enact basic health policy changes, even social scientists came out of the woodwork to provide their own analyses of the situation around them. They expressed their outrage at the neoliberal health model which collapsed in tatters within weeks of the pandemic being labelled as such, they cried out that universal lockdowns were harming only the most vulnerable and would not be able to sustain any long-term health for the community, they disparaged epidemiologists and scientists for creating fictions of panic and catastrophe with their unfinished studies (as if they were not participating in that themselves).

            In all of these, the narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic for any single individual became one that is endlessly muddled and complicated and not parsed through with any amount of clarity. How could anyone look at every single article and tweet and sermon and public health measure and create a comprehensive guide of what one should be doing right now--let alone produce an understanding of what it all means, if meaning can be found during such times as these? Some would argue that fiction and literature can provide that meaning and can provide a broader sense of understanding than is found in science and journalism alone. There are a number of books that could provide some clarity—from the Middle Ages and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Daniel DeFoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. Even still, those novels are temporally quite distant, and their themes do not feel quite as universally, or relevant in our contemporary context.

            I argue, instead, that French philosopher Albert Camus makes this search for meaning in our moment more possible than these other novels. In his 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague), Albert Camus describes a bubonic plague outbreak that takes the colonial Algerian city of Oran by complete surprise, and which, due to slow-moving bureaucracy, rampant public denial, and easily ignored warnings from the medical community, turns into a full epidemic. The Plague is a grim story about the ways that individuals are pushed to the brink during a public health crisis, of how separations from loved ones devastate people’s emotional health, of how human suffering can become part of a “new normal” during a public health crisis, of how even death itself is bureaucratized and blase. Fascinatingly, however, this novel--written during WWII and largely thought of as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France--is entirely fictional. There was no such epidemic in Oran in the 1940s; indeed, while there had been some outbreaks of the bubonic plague in the city during the 1880s, nothing of this scale had happened in Camus’s lifetime. In spite of this, there is a level of understanding about the realities of living life during a public health crisis that no other source that I have read can capture.

            While exploring my own points of view on the text’s relevance to our moment could possibly make for a shorter-term project, this project is dependent on using a more intensive approach--that of participating in informal reading groups with people who were also reading the text at the same time. While Camus was not himself writing during a pandemic (or epidemic for that matter), the events of The Plague have eerie similarities with current biological, social, and mental health crises that have been brought on by the COVID-19 virus. Indeed, the novel in some ways represents how people actually respond to and understand the pandemic complimentary to many official reports from public/global health organizations like the CDC and the WHO, and from even the reports of mainstream journalism. This project looks at the ways in which The Plague can represent, even incidentally, the hard-to-describe reality of life in a pandemic.

            For this project, between January and March, 2021, I coordinated, facilitated, and participated in virtual reading groups, set around discussion of The Plague. These reading groups, which took place over Zoom, accorded more perspectives on the aspects of the book that speak to our moment, and on what is happening in our moment more generally. Ongoing debates on the anthropology of reading (largely from Jonathan Boyarin’s edited collection of essays The Ethnography of Reading, including an essay by Elizabeth Long) explores, in detail, the effects that group reading has on collective interpretation and comprehension of social events--lessons which feel doubly important now, as our collective interpretations of literary voices are mimicked in our interpretations of the “real life” texts and narratives of our pandemic that have control over our lives. In the end, whatever we collectively interpret out of real-life texts is reflected biomedically, in the tidal waves of COVID-19 spread within our communities and around the world.

Traditional ethnographic research, where I would immerse myself in an environment that was wholly different from my own with others, was largely inaccessible for the majority of the time this project was in development. However, the Zoom space gathered for group and paired discussions of a novel about a place far away from all of us participating is something strange, something that can allow for a real, genuine connection that can be translated into an ethnographic understanding of what is happening around us. Zoom became its own fictional space that allowed even further blurring between our reality and the fictional reality of The Plague. In a sea of words and images that pervade our reality right now, our voices and the words of this 80-year-old book allowed us to imagine our own feelings shine through.