Oran comes to a stand still. No more boats show up at the port. No cars leave the town.
The narrator talks about the general reaction of the populace. First they blame the authority figures. This, he says, is not the right way to face the plague.
The weekly plague death tolls are published, but here is the same problem Rieux considered earlier: with no basis for comparison, people can’t comprehend what 302 deaths in a week actually means.
They also don’t know how many people die a week normally, he says. We bet it’s less than 302. (By the way, the town population is 200,000. Or rather, it was 200,000.)
So people bustle about in their ignorance as usual, until just around the end of the month when there are "more serious developments." The Prefect begins rationing gas and food.
Stores and businesses start closing down; with less to do, everyone hangs out in the street at all times of the day. Ironically, this makes it look like they’re all out partying.
On the upside, the movie theaters are making bank, though they do have to show the same film over and over.
There is much heavy drinking, which everyone seems to think will protect against the plague. Nice excuse.
OK, we’ve gotten a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up to two days after the gates closed, when Rieux bumps into Cottard on the street.
Cottard is in super-cheery mood. His stories are all about poor, crazy people that got the plague.
Later that day, Rieux bumps into Grand. For the first time, the narrator tells us, Grand speaks with eloquence and flair – "as if for years he’d been thinking over what he said now."
What he says is this: when he was a teen, he married a young, impoverished girl (Jeanne) and dropped out of school to support her. The marriage went on like many marriages do; you work so hard, you sort of forget about the love part of things. Jeanne suffered, naturally, as they were in poverty and had no passion, and one day she left him, as amiably as one can leave a spouse.
Grand suffered as well. He wanted to write her a letter explaining himself, but of course we know what a problem he has with words.
Rieux, he feels, is the kind of guy he can talk to about this stuff.
Later, about three weeks after the closing of the gates, Rieux bumps into Raymond Rambert, the journalist that we saw in the beginning of the novel asking about poor living conditions in the Arab quarter.
Rambert joins Rieux for a walk, talking incessantly "as if his nerves were out of hand."
He says he’s trying to get back to his wife (or "wife," actually) in Paris. He tries to pull some strings, since he simply had the bad luck to be visiting Oran at the time of quarantine.
Unfortunately, no exceptions can be made.
Rieux tries to comfort him by saying, hey, at least you have a killer journal article in the works.
Since words of comfort are rather useless, all Rambert wants from the doctor is a note saying that he doesn’t have the disease.
Rieux says this is impossible; he has no way of knowing if the man is infected and besides, there are hundreds or thousands in Rambert’s same position. "I know it’s […] absurd," he says, "but […] we’ve got to accept it."
Rambert is angry, and claims the doctor is using words of reason, not of the heart, and speaking in abstractions.
They proceed to debate the classic individual vs. society argument. Rieux wants to do what’s good for society as a whole, but Rambert says he’s not taking into account the lives of individuals.
They part ways, and Rambert enters the hotel where Tarrou is staying.
Now alone, Rieux debates the word "abstraction." When abstraction sets to killing you, he says, you’ve "got to get busy with it."
Rieux heads into one of the auxiliary hospitals he’s been running and details for us in grotesque glory the manner in which he treats patients. We’re not going to repeat it. You can read it or yourself.
The tough part comes when the family wants to see the patient being treated; this isn’t allowed, for reasons of quarantine. He has to deal with their abstraction in argument. (Aha!)
At the moment, he’s dealing with Mme. Loret, the mother of the diseased chambermaid at Tarrou’s hotel.
He recalls the scene when he first went in to see the sick chambermaid. He hates scenes like that, but has to deal with them over and over. And over. Forever, or at least until this plague thing is done. He is, however, conscious of a "bleak indifference steadily gaining on him."
In fact, he doesn’t even feel pity anymore. And why should he? It’s a "useless" emotion, after all. This is the only "solace" he has for his otherwise unendurable days.
The struggle, we are told, is a struggle between abstractions and happiness for each man.