The Health Committee Meeting
By Kelly McKinney
Clip source: (99+) the health committee meeting | LinkedIn
Setting the Scene
In the Algerian city of Oran, Dr. Bernard Rieux steps out of surgery and finds a dead rat lying on the landing. In the days that follow, an increasing number of rodents stagger out into the open and die, blood spurting from their muzzles. Soon thereafter residents of the city begin to report high fever and fatigue with painful swelling and black blotches covering the body. Dr. Rieux lances the swellings on the necks, armpits, and groins of the victims, releasing a thick, bloody pus. Most of the cases are fatal. Dr. Rieux and his colleague, Castel, speculate that the disease is probably the bubonic plague. So Dr. Rieux pushes for a gathering of the city's medical association at the office of the Prefect...
Cast of Characters
Dr. Richard: the chairman of the medical association in Oran
Dr. Castel: an elderly doctor who had served in plague-ravaged China early in his career, he was the first person to utter "plague" in reference to the strange, fatal illness that appears after all the rats in Oran die
The Perfect: the local elected official (e.g., "The Mayor")
Dr. Bernard Rieux: the narrator and hero of The Plague
Excerpt from Camus' The Plague
"NEXT day, by dint of a persistence that many thought ill-advised, Rieux persuaded the authorities to convene a health committee at the Prefect's office.
"People in town are getting nervous, that's a fact," Dr. Richard admitted. "And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, 'Take prompt action if you like, but don't attract attention.' He personally is convinced that it's a false alarm."
Rieux gave Castel a lift to the Prefect's office.
"Do you know," Castel said when they were in the car, "that we haven't a gram of serum in the whole district?"
"I know. I rang up the depot. The director seemed quite startled. It'll have to be sent from Paris."
"Let's hope they're quick about it."
"I sent a wire yesterday," Rieux said.
The Prefect greeted them amiably enough, but one could see his nerves were on edge.
"Let's make a start, gentlemen," he said. "Need I review the situation?"
Richard thought that wasn't necessary. He and his colleagues were acquainted with the facts. The only question was what measures should be adopted.
"The question," old Castel cut in almost rudely, "is to know whether it's plague or not."
Two or three of the doctors present protested. The others seemed to hesitate.
The Prefect gave a start and hurriedly glanced toward the door to make sure it had prevented this outrageous remark from being overheard in the corridor Richard said that in his opinion the great thing was not to take an alarmist view. All that could be said at present was that we had to deal with a special type of fever, with inguinal complications; in medical science, as in daily life, it was unwise to jump to conclusions. Old Castel, who was placidly chewing his draggled yellow mustache, raised his pale, bright eyes and gazed at Rieux.
Then, after sweeping the other members of the committee with a friendly glance, he said that he knew quite well that it was plague and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues' reluctance to face the facts and, if it would ease their minds, he was quite prepared to say it wasn't plague. The Prefect seemed ruffled and remarked that, in any case, this line of argument seemed to him unsound.
"The important thing," Castel replied, "isn't the soundness or otherwise of the argument, but for it to make you think." Rieux, who had said nothing so far, was asked for his opinion.
"We are dealing," he said, "with a fever of a typhoidal nature, accompanied by vomiting and buboes. I have incised these buboes and had the pus analyzed; our laboratory analyst believes he has identified the plague bacillus. But I am bound to add that there are specific modifications that don't quite tally with the classical description of the plague bacillus."
Richard pointed out that this justified a policy of wait-and-see; anyhow, it would be wise to await the statistical report on the series of analyses that had been going on for several days.
"When a microbe," Rieux said, "after a short intermission can quadruple in three days' time the volume of the spleen, can swell the mesenteric ganglia to the size of an orange and give them the consistency of gruel, a policy of wait-and-see is, to say the least of it, unwise. The foci of infection are steadily extending. Judging by the rapidity with which the disease is spreading, it may well, unless we can stop it, kill off half the town before two months are out. That being so, it has small importance whether you call it plague or some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing off half the population of this town."
Richard said it was a mistake to paint too gloomy a picture, and, moreover, the disease hadn't been proved to be contagious; indeed, relatives of his patients, living under the same roof, had escaped it.
"But others have died," Rieux observed. "And obviously contagion is never absolute; otherwise you'd have a constant mathematical progression and the death-rate would rocket up catastrophically. It's not a question of painting too black a picture. It's a question of taking precautions."
Richard, however, summing up the situation as he saw it, pointed out that, if the epidemic did not cease spontaneously, it would be necessary to apply the rigorous prophylactic measures laid down in the Code. And, to do this, it would be necessary to admit officially that plague had broken out. But of this there was no absolute certainty; therefore any hasty action was to be deprecated.
Rieux stuck to his guns. "The point isn't whether the measures provided for in the Code are rigorous, but whether they are needful to prevent the death of half the population. All the rest is a matter of administrative action, and I needn't remind you that our constitution has provided for such emergencies by empowering prefects to issue the necessary orders."
"Quite true," the Prefect assented, "but I shall need your professional declaration that the epidemic is one of plague."
"If we don't make that declaration," Rieux said, "there's a risk that half the population may be wiped out."
Richard cut in with some impatience. "The truth is that our colleague is convinced it's plague; his description of the syndrome proved it."
Rieux replied that he had not described a "syndrome," but merely what he'd seen with his own eyes. And what he'd seen was buboes, and high fever accompanied by delirium, ending fatally within forty-eight hours. Could Dr. Richard take the responsibility of declaring that the epidemic would die out without the imposition of rigorous prophylactic measures?
Richard hesitated, then fixed his eyes on Rieux.
"Please answer me quite frankly. Are you absolutely convinced it's plague?"
"You're stating the problem wrongly. It's not a question of the term I use; it's a question of time."
"Your view, I take it," the Prefect put in, "is this. Even if it isn't plague, the prophylactic measures enjoined by law for coping with a state of plague should be put into force immediately?"
"If you insist on my having a View,' that conveys it accurately enough."
The doctors confabulated. Richard was their spokesman:
"It comes to this. We are to take the responsibility of acting as though the epidemic were plague."
This way of putting it met with general approval.
"It doesn't matter to me," Rieux said, "how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be."
Followed by scowls and protestations, Rieux left the committee-room. Some minutes later, as he was driving down a back street redolent of fried fish and urine, a woman screaming in agony, her groin dripping blood, stretched out her arms toward him."
Source: Camus, Albert, 1913-1960. The Plague. New York : Vintage Books, 1991., pp.47-51