Even the horrible experience they went through did not change their daily habits: “I wish that just like the city that had a new face, people’s behavior had a new look, but people’s general behavior was the same. as before ”.
A reliable source of relief during difficult times is to hear stories from people who tell us that it used to be even worse. That is why in recent days, I have read a lot about epidemics. In the years 1665-1666, the Great London Plague killed more than 68,500 people. And this according to official data, as the real number was probably close to 100,000 victims.
Meanwhile, the British were at war with the Dutch at the time, and less than a year after the plague stopped, a powerful fire would destroy most of the city. And today it seems like the end of the world has come, just because we have to wear a clean shirt for another Zoom conference.
Two of the most famous stories of the plague are Samuel Pepis’s diary of the time, and the novel Confession on the plague, published by Daniel Defoe in 1722. Although very different, both works convey the tension, fear, and horror of living in London at the time, when the plague engulfed the entire city.
The mortality rate of the plague must give us a kind of perspective. Although the current pandemic can be deadly, it is very mild compared to the London plague. At the same time, some of the details described by Pepis and Defoe are similar to those we have experienced in recent months.
Then, as now, there were rumors of the approaching disease, there was also a growing concern from the first deaths, an increase in fear when infections and deaths increased greatly, and uncertainty over how individuals and governments should react.
And as now, that catastrophe caused great damage to the economy. My favorite example is the speculation that Pepis gets, about the effect that the plague would have on the fashion of wearing wigs on his head, mainly out of nobility ”because no one will dare to buy one now for fear of infection, as the hair they have been beheaded and killed by the plague. ” At least we don’t have that kind of concern.
Then as now there was social distancing. “The best cure for the plague is to get rid of it,” says narrator Defoe. Even this was more extreme than then: soldiers guarded the homes of the sick, forcibly keeping them inside, despite screaming and praying for their release. In Defoe’s confession, a family escaped from prison by blowing up one of the guards.
When Pepis found an abandoned corpse in an open coffin, he reflected that “this disease is making us more cruel to each other than to us dogs.” And if the media reports that New Yorkers are adopting dogs from animal shelters to become friends during quarantine are accurate, then coronavirus is making us treat dogs particularly well.
Some people hope that the current pandemic will somehow smooth out the sharp edges of partisanship. Defoe points out that something similar happened during the London Storm, as Christians of different faiths viewed each other with less suspicion.
Unfortunately, the good feelings did not last long, and when the mutineer began to leave, the Catholics and Anglicans began to clash with each other again. Defoe’s narrator also hoped that the end of the plague would inspire Londoners to remember God’s mercy.
He was disappointed: “They sang in his honor, but soon forgot his deeds.” Even the horrible experience they went through did not change their daily habits: “I wish that just like the city that had a new face, people’s behavior had a new look, but people’s general behavior was the same. as before ”. If that epidemic is a kind of precedent, then we should not expect human nature to change when the current health crisis passes.
I still think about the optimism of the poet John Dryden. In 1666, the city survived the triple threat of plague, fire, and war, and Dryden imagined reborn London as a Phoenix: “Now it is bigger, and more divine.” Therefore, let us build something great, even on the “grace” that this disease will leave behind.