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Korea Blog: Reading Albert Camus’s “The Plague” in the Time of the Coronavirus

Nearly every day of the past few weeks, all the mobile phones in Seoul have gone off at the same time: some days once, some twice, some more than that. The cause is Korea’s emergency alert system, which in the years I’ve lived here has warned of flood risks, heat waves, and exceptional densities of air pollution. But now, in the time of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, it announces each new outbreak, with details running to the area of the city in which it occurred. (Other regions of the country get announcements of their own.) The increased frequency of these simultaneous rings and vibrations colors life in Seoul these days, as do the thousands of surgical-masked faces seen in the street, the Mandarin-speakers wearing “I AM FROM TAIWAN” buttons, and the subway-station announcements — repeated over and over again in various languages including an especially loud English — about the importance of thorough hand-washing.

Though I can hardly complain about the greatly increased ease of getting a seat on the subway, nobody can ignore how much more subdued life in Seoul has become, and how quickly. But Seoulites can at least take comfort in the fact that they’re not in Daegu, the city roughly 150 miles to the southeast where the coronavirus made its dramatic Korean debut. (It now seems members of Daegu’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus, one the many religious sects thriving in this country, carried the virus back after a visit to a branch in Wuhan, the Chinese city from which it originated.) Last week I asked an acquaintance from Daegu, who had to make a trip to his hometown for dental work, what the city looks like nowadays: he compared it to I Am Legend, the movie about the aftermath of a virus that kills off 90 percent of humanity.

Fans of Los Angeles cinema may be more familiar with an earlier telling of the same story: 1971’s The Omega Man, which stars Charlton Heston as the last man alive in the city — apart, that is, from a group of nocturnal albino mutants. Both films are based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, one of the works of literature to which the coronavirus promises a renewed readership. The wide spread of the virus means this now obtains not just in Asia but in the West, in whose oldest major pandemic novel A Journal of the Plague Year Daniel Defoe fictionalizes the diary of a survivor of the Black Death that swept through London in 1665. Though remembered as a European disease, the bubonic plague left its mark elsewhere, sometimes repeatedly: Oran, the second-largest city in Algeria, lost much of its population to the disease in 1556 and 1678, with three smaller-scale outbreaks in the 20th century.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.