The guiding principle of community psychology from the very start has always concerned the setting or population as the basis for change rather than the individual (Revenson, et al, 2001). Thus, how a community responds to a threat or a difficulty is viewed from the assumption that it should be seen as a problem of not only a single person but of all the persons who belong to the community. In the story “The Plague,” the narrator relates the story of how his community reacted to a plague that swept through his city.
The timing of the book’s publishing and how it was written made it very popular. It is considered a classic. It is not that fact though, that made me choose it for this task. Time and again, what really astounds me is its groundedness. As the author related in the many pages of this book, the plague is not an experience that has many highs and lows but more of just tedious and deafeningly quiet time that can bring one on the brink of madness, and yet, in its quiet and enduring way, the story gives much hope of possibilities or even just a hope of something or anything when faced with nothing.
Maybe too, it is a fitting book for the times, for again we are visited by another one of nature’s ghosts. The most current being the Influenza A H1N1 virus that is in our midst and a reminder of the book’s conclusion that “that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city” (Camus, 1991).
Today’s problem may be a virus and not a bacillus but just the same, the world that is in a state of pandemic is left to battle sickness yet again. Thus, the book speaks to us today by giving some outline of how their community acted in a time of calamity. It gives a sense of hope that through efforts of the community, including those who were not in authority, things can definitely be done. Not only that, it encourages readers to be part of a larger picture that includes not just the self and the immediate family, but also those who are around us in our community.
The story was set in a city in northern Algeria named Oran during a period when the city was struck by a plague. It starts with a description of the city before the plague had begun and continues into the story by recounting how the town doctor, Dr. Bernard Rieux, noted a dead rat on the stair landing of his office building. It was that instant that he remembers as the start of the plague, and how after that, thousands of rats began to die, then cats followed along with the dogs, until it finally started to include the townspeople. Like most disasters, we don’t really know what hit us until it is actually upon us—the tsunami that struck after Christmas Day in 2004, the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Center, and the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) global epidemic. When Dr. Rieux saw the rat, he didn’t really think much about it until later when the dying rats increased in number and humans also started dying. Recalling the rat on the landing, he then realized that it held more meaning that just simply being a dead rat. As a parallel, the occurrence of the tsunami that killed thousands should have been expected since an earthquake with great magnitude happened in the same area earlier. Unfortunately, safeguards were lacking, resulting in the death of thousands. Since that fateful event, changes have been made to address the lack of safeguards and many systems have been put in place; including the educating of the local people on what to expect and what to do in such events.
Going back to the story, the account of the plague came from the journal of a visitor named Jean Tarrou and he told of how it affected the people of Oran and how a once dull and somewhat lifeless but habitual community changed because of the plague. When it was acknowledged that the plague had come to Oran, they closed down the city to the outside world to quarantine it, and thus, cut them off from the outside world. Dr. Rieux, who had sent his wife to a sanitorium in the mountains, and Jean Tarrou, who was just a visitor to Oran, were now cut off from loved ones together with all others who were trapped inside the city and others who could not come inside the city. The plague that hit Oran had become a reality to its people and they begin to struggle to fight the plague along with the suffering it had brought. They knew that they must endure the plague but they wondered whether they would live or die. Some, like the journalist Raymond Rambert who was visiting the city, dreamt of escaping and tried to find ways of escaping the quarantine just to get back home to his loved ones. Others found comfort in reason and justice as a Jesuit priest preached punishment of sins brought by the plague. Father Paneloux told the people that the plague was sent to them to punish them. Finally, there were those who gave of themselves and volunteered as sanitary squads to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the plague. Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert were among the volunteers. As summer came to Oran, the plague also became worse, killing so many that there was no longer any space left to bury the dead and the town’s crematorium worked to the hilt burning dead bodies.
The citizens of the town, meanwhile, continued in their suffering as many more continued to die and the days seemed endlessly filled with pain. Still the plague persisted without abating. Father Paneloux, who was very vocal about his view of the plague as a punishment from God, witnessed the death of a child from the plague and was left to question his beliefs. He then began to show more compassion for his flock. Jean Tarrou and Dr. Rieux reflect on whether extreme punishment for wrongdoing should have a place in this world. He cited the death penalty as one kind of punishment and that he is very much opposed to it. This part of the book reminded me very much of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I remember watching on CNN the accounts of the survivors as to the void they felt traversing the very long walk down the stairwells with the deafening question “Am I going to die?” reverberating in their heads. As a mere spectator, it is easy for me to say that if it were me, I would fight to live; but I saw for myself how many who were on the higher floors jumped to their deaths. I often wonder what went through their minds during those moments and thus, I find it fitting then to quote how “the townspeople had adapted, they had come to heel, as people say, because that was all they could do” (Camus, 1991). Maybe when one thinks that there is nowhere else to go, it is useless to fight.
Anyhow, one character that the story centers on is that of Cottard. Cottard was a man who, instead suffering from the effects of the plague, was happy about it. As the plague progressed and worsened, Cottard become happier and showed it by wining and dining away the days. He did not fall victim to the plague. Another character presented was Joseph Grand, a municipal office clerk who was trying to write the perfect novel. Grand was a friend of Dr. Rieux and was noted to be a quietly enduring sort of man. Grand fell victim to the plague. Miraculously though, he did not die from the plague. On the contrary, he recovered from the plague and after him, more people began to recover, and the rats that had been the first to die, began to come out alive. Jean Tarrou, though, dies from the plague. The book ends with the plague leaving Oran as suddenly as it came. The quarantine was lifted and the people celebrated. Families and loved ones, including Rambert, were united. Cottard though began to despair and hysterically began shooting people injuring them until he was dragged away by the police. It was believed that he may have done some wrong before the start of the plague explaining his unusual reaction to it. Dr. Rieux reveals also at the end that the book that he is the story’s narrator and that he had hoped to tell the story of the plague in Oran by seeing it through the victim’s side and their suffering during the plague. Dr. Rieux, though, was not reunited with his wife who died while she was in the sanitarium. The book then ends with the observation that the plague never goes away but just sort-of hibernates or hides until for a time until it comes out again.
We can never really get rid of disasters, problems, or difficulties. Being rid of all those would be a utopia and that does not seem likely in this world. The central issue of the book was that of suffering—the human person’s suffering. Merged with it were the experiences of deprivation, despair, hopelessness, and anger. In effect, the book dealt with the human person in his or her period of absurdity wherein the feeling of fatalism rears its head and the struggle to remain stable and in control becomes difficult. Being struck by a plague that kills hundreds a day and thousands a week was one experience that when placed in the setting that the author decided upon would probably shake the very core of the human person. How does one react to the possibility of being the next victim? Or how does one reconcile being apart from a beloved during the very time one needs him or her most? Or more importantly how does one survive day after day after day of facing pain, death, suffering, and hopelessness? To most of the characters in the story, the time of the plague was when death was more of a reality than life which, as each day passed, seemed less and less tangible. This, according to the narration of the story, was where the misfortune lay—that despair had become a habit. People usually adapt to their surrounds and in the case of the people of Oran, they had adapted to the presence of the plague and lived it.
However, because of its overwhelming presence, it loomed too much in the horizon that everything else because secondary or abstract when compared to it. The lived and breathed the plague and thus, much of what they did centered on it. Private citizens even volunteered their efforts to alleviate the town’s suffering by preventing its spread the ways they knew how. This is how a community is able to marshall its own strengths and knowledge to collaborate and empower its people; by using what the same strength and knowledge for efforts in projects that promote the well-being of the community (Dalton et al, 2001). During the World Trade Center attack, it had seemed that the wonder of modern day technology had been beaten and we regressed to the middle ages living in fear of being attacked anytime. As history has shown though, the spirit of the human person always transcends the past and the present and somehow he is always able to get up, rebuild, and even make his world better than it was before disaster struck. It seems that when disaster strikes the human person always finds it in himself to reach out to others in order to work things out and thus, get a better outcome.
The despair that was brought about by the plague and the fact that the town was being quarantined was a commonality that they all had to battle. The characters in the story had come to realize that by acting as one they could fight the plague. This included addressing not only the survival of as many people as possible but also addressing the diverse emotions and responses of the people of Oran to the presence of the plague. It is not to say that the goal of the community at the very start was really to battle the plague. Certainly, at the start, the citizens responded to plague out of fear. Maybe too, they still had this measure of hope that it was not really happening and if they close their eyes or fought its presence, it would go away. Unfortunately though, it did not and it was then that they realized that their choices really were between passively accepting their fate and fighting it as best that they could. Thus, when the plague was at its peak, the townspeople set up their own systems on how to battle the plague by preventing it spread or at least lessening the spread. As discussed above, they set up volunteer sanitary squads disposed of their dead as best they could.
They tried their best to bury their dead decently and when the plague had their backs to the wall with the number of people dead, they tried their best the shield the living from seeing how the dead were disposed of, out of respect for both the living and the dead. The people of Oran went beyond themselves to by acting as one unit that served to lessen the suffering brought by the plague. They changed their set ways of life in order to accommodate the problems brought about by the disease. Knowing though whether they had made progress in battling the plague was certainly difficult since, as the author recounted, “ week in, week out, the prisoners of the plague struggled along as best they could. As we have seen, a few, like Rambert, even managed to imagine that they were acting as free men and that they could still choose. But in reality one could say, at that moment, in the middle of August, that the plague had covered everything” (Camus, 1991). The plague, though, was not the only thing that needed to be battled against. The plague brought with it hysteria, depression, and a general feeling of hopelessness, and anger. These emotions were the other enemies that the people of Oran had to contend with and fight against especially since being quarantined cut them off from the rest of the world. For some, the quarantine cut them off from their loved ones, and thus, added to their suffering.
Jean Tarrou and Dr. Rieux, together with their friends knew that “their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down” (Camus, 1991). There were many heroes that could be pointed out in the story. Characters such as Dr. Bernard Rieux, Jean Tarrou, and Joseph Grand, were some of the main characters who responded to the challenge of defying the plague. At the start of it, Dr. Rieux just continued ministering to the sick as a doctor would during a time of plague. As it progressed though, even those who were not of the medical profession joined in the effort by volunteering when teams or squads were set up to insure proper hygiene. They taught the citizens the essentials of proper hygiene and they also made sure living conditions were disinfected and thus, hygienic. Not only that, Grand who was a municipal office clerk, made sure that all these were recorded—the people who fell ill and those who died. They knew that the best that they could do was to prevent as many people as they could not only from dying but also from suffering.
They had to fight the plague. In community psychology, the decision of the people to take it upon themselves to battle the plague is known as citizen participation. This is the ability of persons to have a say in how problems are addressed and solved, what decisions should be made, and how news should be disseminated (Dalton et al, 2001). In order for the citizens to achieve this, they could not just rely on what the local administration was doing, but for them to also go out of their way to help by volunteering their services and so they set up sanitary squads or teams. One squad was tasked to encourage essential hygiene. They also checked the lofts and cellars that had not been visited and disinfected by the disinfection squads. Another section of these voluntary teams helped the doctors during home visits, transported the victims when required while another section took upon the task of recording all these—the number of those falling ill, the number of those who died, and hopefully, the number of those who recovered.
Concerns and possibilities differed at the start of the plague, during its peak, and at its end. During the early days of the plague, the citizens were concerned about being infected or not while some were concerned about the fact that the town was being quarantined and thus, cut off from the rest of the world. This exiled some from their loved ones who were outside Oran while others felt like they were being imprisoned and had to share the fate of those who had been struck by the plague with the possibility of they themselves getting the plague. As the plague progressed and no relieve came in sight, the people began to despair, the narrator put it in these words, “the truth must be told: the plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now”(Camus, 1991). Nearing its plague’s end though, when those who survived began to see some measure of relief, they began to hope again, and their concerns again, turned towards the possibility of the future.
Some characters in the story, like Cottard, saw the plague as an escape from punishment. Thus, instead of succumbing to the sorrow and pain of the community, he reacted differently and reveled in the hustle and bustle created by the plague that insured his freedom. When the plague lifted and he knew his time was up, he then broke down into hysterics. But, on the whole, like any huge problem that affects not only one or two or even three in a community, eventually the effort of a few becomes futile unless a bigger number or the whole community decides to help. In the story, the “big picture” that needed to be addressed was how to overcome the plague since “no longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all” (Camus, 1991). It is social justice in action wherein one’s destiny is included as the community tries to advocate policies that includes the wellbeing of all people especially those that are marginalized (Dalton et al, 2001). By choosing to volunteer to help prevent its spread, they advocated for the health of all those who were still living in the time of the plague.
Another dimension that was added in the story was how Father Paneloux saw the plague as a punishment from God, but eventually, he too, found the grace to feel compassion for the people and thus, saw it fit to explain that even if he believed that the plague came from God, with it comes the strength, the goodness, and the steadfastness needed to survive the plague. In his own way, he had made a statement that by believing in God, the human person need not acknowledge that his belief binds him to a certainty of death and it is better not to fight it, but that by believing in God, the human person acknowledges his free will to define his destiny—to live. Father Paneloux was more helpful when having experienced the death of a young child, showed compassion for the people of Oran and become more sympathetic towards them. Like Dr. Riuex, he did not believe in fatalism, and instead, preached that “No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite” (Camus, 1991).
A very central concept in community psychology that was evident in this book was how a community in times of difficulty learns to adapt and along the way finds itself empowered. Here in the story, by defying what disease has brought upon the human person, man has empowered himself and those around him. Not only that, by deciding to choose life over death, he or she has transcended fatalism by mastering life. Another important concept is that of first-order change and second-order change where it is shown that there is difference when change occurs within a person and when it occurs within a system or structure. According to Watzlawick et al (1974), it is second-order change that should be the focus of community psychology since first-order change is about change that occurs in a person in order for a problem to be fixed while second-order change is about change within the system or structure involved in the problem to better fit the person and environment. This is what the community psychologist should always keep as a guide and a strategy—that change should come not because there is a problem, but that their should be change to make the world better for those who live in it.
In this setting of a plague, anyone and everyone would want to prevent its spread and thus work hard to battle it. How to measure the outcomes always starts with the knowledge of the plague’s nature. In the case of the story, they knew that the plague had come from the rats that eventually infected the cats, dogs, and humans in the town. They knew that the disease caused considerable pain to the patient before it killed and that it spread swiftly and killed in hundreds in a matter of days. Thus, the administration of the town decided to quarantine Oran. But it was not enough and many continued to die. So, during the plague, the citizens decided to volunteer because they knew that the existing system was not helping since there were too few people and they could not cope up with the number of dead everyday. Thus, by volunteering, they changed the system by not depending anymore on the local authorities to prevent the spread of plague. They did it themselves. They went about preventing it spread by teaching the people the essentials of hygiene. Not only that, they tried their best to disinfect as much of the town as possible. Lastly but not the least important of their efforts was their disposal of their dead. As a community psychologist, one is an agent of change for the betterment of a community.
There are many ways to answer to problems. It would be easiest to just give up and despair and wait for fate to step in. Human as we are though, whether by grace or misfortune, most of us answer in defiance and stand up to transcend whatever problem comes our way. It is in this hope that every doctor decides to empower not only himself but the rest of those around him. I think this was the central concept of this book—whether we believe in a God or not, whether we are destined to live or die, the answer will always lie within ourselves, and we must choose life. Unerringly too, to choose life, one must choose it not only for himself but also for those around him or her, because it is in community that life has more meaning. In the presence of another, one is made more alive.
As the author recounts near his ending, “in the midst of the cries that increased in strength and duration, echoing a long way right to the foot of the building, while the many-coloured wreaths and showers of fireworks rose in ever greater numbers into the sky, Dr Rieux decided to write the account that ends here, so as not to be one of those who keep silent, to bear witness on behalf of the victims, to leave at least a memory of the violence and injustice that was done to them, and to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise” (Camus, 1991). To choose life is the best way of transcending—it is how the human person becomes part of the bigger circle that we call life.
- Camus, Albert (1991). The Plague. New York: Vintage Books.
- Dalton, J.H., Elias, M.J., & Wandersman, A. (2001). Community Psychology: Linking Individuals and Communities. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth
- Revenson, T., D’Augelli, A., et al. (2002). A Quarter Century of Community Psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
- Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: Norton.
Cite this Community psychology
Community psychology. (2016, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/community-psychology/