April 30th 1665–Great fears of the Sickenesses here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all. –Samuel Pepys diary.
“The face of London was—now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected. But in the whole the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger.” –Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
The past few days have been as surreal here in London as in the rest of the world. The skies to the south of our house, normally featuring a plane every 90 seconds in the landing pattern for Heathrow, are mostly quiet for minutes at a time now. Trafalgar Square (from this Reuters picture below) is empty, Admiral Nelson left to wonder where all the people went. I went to get some milk this morning and turned right around when I got to the main supermarket–it was zombie apocalypse panic in there (the media hasn’t helped, with front pages like the one yesterday at left, though the photo is clever). The small market nearer our house had what we needed. We can only hope that people’s irrationality doesn’t break a food supply chain that for now is working. We hear sirens nearly non-stop; are there really more or are we noticing them more now?
Since we will be at the very least confined to our neighborhood, if not our house and yard for the next several weeks, we’ll blog about what life is like here during this pandemic. This is not the first pandemic to afflict London. Samuel Pepys recorded as it unfolded the last return of the Bubonic plague to London in 1665. His diary is a remarkable document, and worth reading, if for no other reason that to recognize that it could be much, much worse. You also get a sense of the cataclysm of that plague from Daniel Defoe’s fictional Journal, which nonetheless drew on sources from the event two generations earlier. Sources like these Bills of Mortality which enumerated the number of sick and dead parish by parish, week after week. The mortality broadsheet by John Dunstall (1665) in the Museum of London collection tells the story in a different way. Over the 18 month course of the epidemic, more than 68,000 Londoners died, and those were only the officially recorded deaths. Most historians estimate the number was much closer to 100,000, or possibly almost 25% of the pre-epidemic population–and far more people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Disease, like famine, is always partially a social construction.
To be sure there is evidence of panic in these old sources–those who could (i.e., the wealthy) fled the city in droves. As Defoe wrote, “the number of people there were indeed extremely lessened by so great a multitude having been gone into the country; and even all this month of July they continued to flee, though not in such multitudes as formerly. In August, indeed, they fled in such a manner that I began to think there would be really none but magistrates and servants left in the city.” And grief, despair, and feelings of helplessness abound. Not to mention clergy castigating citizens for their sins, above all the sin of regicide two decades earlier: “May not then this Nation justly expect Gods greatest judgements to fall on the people of it,” declaimed John Bell, “for shedding the blood of their lawful sovereign?” But there is also ample evidence of people helping one another, of a determination to survive, of a desire to reconstruct society after the epidemic ended.
As has been reported so often in recent weeks, the pandemic to which the COVID-19 outbreak best compares is the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. (If you’re looking for reading material during this time of social distancing and want a good global history of that flu pandemic, I can’t recommend Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider strongly enough.) Spinney and others have described the mostly inadequate responses to the flu, especially in Great Britain (such as fumigating buses as in the photo to the left). As the Times of London reported in October 1918, gardeners from London’s park system had to be recruited to dig graves. About 0.6% of Britons died of the flu in that terrible year, a calamity on top of the horrors of World War I. Germ theory was still in its infancy, and the cause of the flu was hotly debated. A stiff upper lip was deemed as good a prophylactic as any: “Fear is certainly the mother of infection. To go about expecting the influenza is to invite it. Such an attitude lowers natural resistance,” opined the Times. “The alarmists and defeatists are the allies of the epidemic.” There’s something to that last sentiment.
Alarmism is itself a kind of disease, and fear can have crippling effects. We have been bemused and a bit embarrassed that so many of our fellow denizens of the so-called developed world have been panic-buying toilet paper. When an estimated 2.1 billion people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, this frenzy buying out of fear of not having something to wipe with indicates how rarely most of us in places like the UK and the US ever have to think about the truly essential needs of human existence. Like clean water. Like reliable shelter. Like a climate that sustains agriculture. More than 1.35 million people in the world died in traffic deaths last year alone. Air pollution kills more than 4.2 million a year. None of this is to downplay the seriousness of this pandemic. The immediacy of the threat this virus poses will obviously and appropriately focus our attention on a particular kind of problem solving. The worst case scenarios are grim indeed, and hopefully the world can pull together (a good start would be to stop pointing fingers and calling names) and mitigate the disaster as much as possible.
This pandemic is but one of many alarm lights flashing to tell us that we have knocked the earth’s ecological systems badly out of whack. If we can emerge from this period of crisis having undergone a cultural shift that will lighten our footprint on the planet, we may, in the end, save far more lives in the future than are lost in this pandemic.