In 1665, a terrible plague began in London. By the end of the epidemic an estimated 100,000 of the 460,000 living there had died. Sadly the vast majority of them were the poor. The wealthier citizens like lawyers, businessmen and even doctors fled from the contagion into country homes much like King Charles II who left London for Hampton Court. Even Parliament suspended meetings within the city, choosing to only gather one time in Oxford.
Once an individual became sick all members of the family were quarantined by law in their home. The doors of such houses were marked with a foot long red cross with the words, “Lord, have mercy upon us” written above or below the marking. Armed watchmen then patrolled outside the home twenty four hours a day with orders to kill anyone who attempted to force his/her way either inside or outside. Burials in mass graves took place in the early morning and late afternoon hours as the disease raged through the late spring, summer and fall of 1665 and then burned itself out in the spring of 1666.
It is believed that the illness was carried by fleas on rats and dogs so efforts were made to eradicate any stray creatures. Unfortunately the crowded and unsanitary conditions in the poorer sections of town made the people in those areas more susceptible to becoming ill. The incubation period once an individual was infected was only a matter of days and the likelihood of it spreading to anyone who had been in close contact was great.
I have been reading accounts of this plague by Daniel Defoe who is better known for his story of Robinson Crusoe. In the flowery English of the era A Journal of the Plague Year provides a vivid account of the horror and fears of the people, the attempts to limit the spread of the illness by authorities, and the civil disruptions that occurred as more and more unfortunate souls became ill. In another time I might have found his memories to be quaintly interesting but given our present situation I instead find myself identifying with the concerns and confusion that the epidemic produced. It was as though the world of the citizens of London had been turned upside down as they watched death and privation overwhelm them.
I thought of my own grandfather’s accounts of a smallpox outbreak in his town at the end of the nineteenth century when he was in his teens. His father and stepmother both became ill and he was charged with their care. Guards patrolled the property to insure that nobody save the local doctor went inside the house or came out. The incident had such a profound effect on my grandfather that he told the story of his time in quarantine over and over again. In his usual style he added a bit of dark humor to his recitation that demonstrated his preferred way of coping with the isolation and concerns for his family.
Humankind has been here before. People have faced pandemics that were ultimately quite terrible and they did so without the resources that we enjoy. Nobody was driving for take out dinners but my grandfather did admit that he ordered some moonshine to be delivered for his dad. He figured that the poor man was going to die anyway so a bit of whiskey might make his father more comfortable. Other than that it was just a lonely time for my grandpa and one in which he might possibly have contracted the disease himself. Somehow that never happened but as my grandfather noted it did not mean that the contagion was not as bad as people thought.
We have a far better understanding of infectious diseases than ever before in history. We are able to unlock the DNA and RNA of the viruses and bacteria that live invisibly around us. We have modern hospitals and sanitation methods that we heretofore believed would protect us in ways that our ancestors did not have. I suppose that we have in many ways assumed that we might never be touched by the kinds of epidemics that have historically rocked civilizations We have had a kind of false pride in our modernity and accomplishments, believing that we were somehow immune from the kind of disruptions that have occurred in the past. Now we see that in many ways we were wrong.
Covid-19 has shown us the cracks in the foundations of our public health services, our economy and even our relationships with one another. If we are to find a positive take- away from this horrific situation we will need to learn from our mistakes. That will require a level of honesty that has been slowly eroding in our politically charged world. We don’t want to hide difficulties but rather find ways to expose and attack them.
We are better educated and more knowledgeable than the unfortunate souls who suffered in the past but if our hubris prevents us from taking the necessary steps to prevent pandemics from happening on such a scale again there will most definitely be consequences. The eventual outcomes should not be about who is best or first. This should not be a competition but a convening of the best minds and ideas from all over the world. We can’t afford to turn our backs like they did in the past and leave the most vulnerable alone to deal with the problems.