On Plagues and Pandemics

Medical staff wearing protective clothing take a patient off an ambulance at St Thomas’ hospital as the spread of the coronavirus continues in London, England, March 31, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
Some perspective from the 17th century.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A   reliable source of comfort during difficult times is hearing about people who had it even worse. That’s why I’ve been reading about the plague.

In 1665–66 the Great Plague of London killed more than 68,500 people — according to official records, anyway; the real toll was probably closer to 100,000. The English were also at war with the Dutch at the time, and less than a year after the plague subsided, a fire would destroy much of the city.

And you think you’ve got it tough, having to put on a collared shirt over your sweatpants for another Zoom conference.

Two of the most famous accounts of the plague are the contemporaneous diary of Samuel Pepys and the novel A Journal of the Plague Year, published by Daniel Defoe in 1722. Though quite different, both works convey the tension, fear, and horror among Londoners as the plague devoured the city.

The extent of the plague’s lethality should give us perspective. Although the current pandemic can be deadly, it is mild by comparison. At the same time, some of what Pepys and Defoe describe is similar to what we’ve experienced over the past several months. Then, as now, there were rumors of the disease approaching, a growing concern at the first fatalities, intensifying fear as infections and mortalities increased, and uncertainty over how individuals and governments should respond.

And then, as now, the “distemper” inflicted major damage to the economy. My favorite, albeit minor, example is Pepys’s speculation of what effect the plague would have on the fashion of wig-wearing, “for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.” At least we don’t have that to worry about.

There was social distancing then, too. “The best physique against the plague is to run away from it,” Defoe’s narrator advises. Even that was more extreme then: Watchmen stood guard at the houses of the infected, keeping them inside no matter how loudly they begged to be released. In Defoe’s account, one family escaped confinement by blowing up a watchman.

When Pepys encountered a corpse left in an open coffin, he reflected that “this disease [is] making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.” If the reports about New Yorkers adopting dogs from shelters to be quarantine companions are accurate, the coronavirus is making us treat dogs especially well.

Some people have expressed the hope that the current pandemic will blunt the sharp edges of partisanship. Defoe depicts something like that happening during the plague, as Christians of differing beliefs viewed each other with less suspicion. Unfortunately, the good feelings didn’t last, and when the plague abated, the Dissenters and Anglicans were at each other’s throats again.

Defoe’s narrator also hoped the plague’s end would inspire Londoners to remember God’s mercy. He was disappointed: “They sang his praise, but they soon forgot his Works.” Nor did the mortifying experience change most everyday habits: “I wish I could say that as the city had a new face, so the manners of the people had a new appearance,” but “the general practice of the people was just as it was before.”

If the plague is precedent, then, we shouldn’t expect human nature to change when this present crisis passes. Still, I think of the optimism of the poet John Dryden. In 1666, the city having survived the triple threat of plague, fire, and war, Dryden imagined London reborn like a phoenix: “More great than human now, and more August.”

May we build something great from the ashes of this illness.

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