It maybe fashionable to term the current COVID-19 pandemic as unique and unprecedented, yet writers and writings have been fascinated by plagues and pandemics ever since Thucydides in ancient Greece, a witness to the plague in Athens. This paper attempts to take stock of the central themes in literature about plagues and epidemics during the last century, and highlight the central themes unifying and differentiating writers who have written about them; their hopes and fears, as well as what one may learn from their insights about the current plight in the time of COVID-19 in order to aim for sustainable development.
The paper will begin by considering Albert Camus’s oft-mentioned classic The Plague, but also consider what he said in a little-known imaginative essay ‘An Appeal to Doctors Fighting the Plague’, which he wrote prior to the novel. The paper, then, moves on to look at Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) which deserves to be as well-known as his fable Robinson Crusoe. Among more recent masterpieces of the 20th century are Jose Saramago’s Blindness and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
Given that China is in the news not only for the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is alleged to have originated from Wuhan (where it has also been successfully defeated), it would be an injustice not to include Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, which connects an AIDS pandemic in China with issues of governmental corruption and rural poverty. Finally, the question of whether some hope can emerge from pandemics is considered with an evaluation of H.G. Wells’ timeless classic The War of the Worlds, usually marketed as a science fiction work, but where microbes provide the ultimate salvation for humanity from a Martian invasion. The paper will conclude with reflections on whether literature can play a role in showing us a way out of COVID-19 and towards sustainable development; and more importantly what types of epidemics are looming over and waiting for the world in the future? What kind of hardships will they visit upon humanity? And can we even be sure that there will be stories then to be told, written and read?