Contagion, fear, fake news and quackery. There are striking similarities between today’s crisis and the Great Plague of London centuries ago. Has anything changed?
For a long time in the western world history was cruising. We thought we were experiencing interesting and testing times. We are now. Populism, fire, floods and climate change churn and rage and now the plague is back. Coronavirus is profoundly changing our society in ways we are only starting to realise. It’s happened before of course but we have to go back to 1666 for the last time there was such a similar serious contagion in Britain during the Great Plague of London
A Journal of the Plague
Plague literature is either perfect or the worst choice of reading at the moment. But what we are going through now is all there in Daniel Defoe’s documentary novel, A Journal of the Plague Year. Centuries later nothing changes much. Defoe’s narrator provides an eye-witness account of the trauma of the plague on London. Defoe himself was only five years old at the time but it is thought he based his novel on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe, as well as his own research.
Great Plague of London
The 1665-66 great plague of London was the last bubonic plague outbreak to occur in England. It killed an estimated 100,000 Londoners in 18 months, a quarter of the city’s population. Nor was this a one-off. Outbreaks of bubonic plague had been happening in London throughout the 17th century; part of the Second Pandemic that started with the Black Death, which reached mainland Europe in 1348 and killed up to a half of the population of Eurasia in the next four years.
17th century London was a jostling, teeming, exciting, crowded, noisy city. It was full of over-crowded tenements, shanty towns and open sewers. There was no sanitation and the roads were choked and slippery with animal dung, rotting rubbish and slops thrown out from the windows. The stench was overwhelming. Flies, flees and rats proliferated amongst the filth.
It was ripe for plague and when it came it swept through the streets – probing, retreating and then rushing in to overwhelm parishes and neighbourhoods. For some, death came so fast that they were felled in the street.
17th century Londoners knew it was coming. They watched, with mounting unease, the evidence on the weekly bills of mortality publishing causes of death across London, just like we watch our own media feeds.
A sense of melancholy descended on London. As calamity approached, Londoners became “addicted to prophecies, and astrological conjurations, dreams and old wives tales”. A comet was an ominous portend. Preachers and naysayers haunted the streets with doomladen cries. One character roamed the streets endlessly repeating a dismal loop of “O! The great and dreadful God”.
A single person could convince a crowd a ghost was walking amongst them. A woman tried to convince the narrator there was an angel. He looked but saw nothing more than the sun shining through clouds. For his disbelief, he was called a “prophane fellow and a scoffer…it was a time of God’s anger, and dreadful judgements were approaching; and that despisers, such as he would wonder and perish.”
People heard voices warning them to flee. They divined the clouds, seeing ominous shapes and figures. Floating coffins materialised out of air and vapour. Heaps of bodies drifted over the city. It was a city terrified by its imagination. A city putting their faith in fortune-tellers, cunning men, magic pretenders, quacks and conjurers who plastered the streets with advertising signs and bills for their services and remedies.
The voices online
Modern streets are dull and quiet compared to the teeming chaos of yesteryear. Street observers like Dickens or Defoe would probably feel more at home wandering Kolkata or Yangon than modern-day London or Hong Kong. Go online and that’s where the madness and the voices and hysteria now reside. Defoe would recognise the fraudsters working coronavirus for new angles. Fake news bots spew out disinformation just like in Defoe’s day only it then it was the new fast print media of mass pamphlets and flyers. Online you’ll find price gouging, phishing, hysteria, quackery, a peddling of dubious wares and shouting for attention just like in 17th century London.
Offline, where 17th century London puts their faith in spells and charms, we place our faith in hoarding excessive amounts of toilet paper, pasta and paracetamol and, judging by the empty shelves of one local Glaswegian supermarket, crisps and alcohol.
Those who could, fled the city or used their wealth to survive just like today’s rich buying their testing kits, medical kit and way out with private jets. Many fled to country homes, just like those today who flee to their holiday homes in Cornwall or the Highlands. Although what is different in the 21st century UK are those choosing to sneak in a crafty holiday and crowding markets, beaches and tourist spots. You doubt we would be flouting lockdowns if we were facing the same deadly peril as Defoe’s Londoners.
In Defoe’s day the authorities also shut down the entertainment industry. All those gaming tables, theatres and dancing rooms were “shut up and suppress’d; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppet-shows, rope-dancers and such like doing, which had bewitch’d the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade”. They found no trade mostly because “death was before their eyes and every body began to think of their graves, not of mirths and divisions.”
We’re not there yet as our coronavirus deniers, still refusing to social distance, still determined to enjoy their pint or cappuccino. Some of the Glasgow bars are looking like Edward Hopper paintings, other places still serve the lockdown deniers, the coronavirus v-sign flickers, the one last drink opportunists and those mainlining the end of days vibe. The local park was crowded with people clearly not social distancing but that’s the reality of expecting gallus Glaswegians to avoid spring sunshine after a long dispiriting winter.
On the last day of school, large groups of children and teenagers congregated in the park. Their idea of social distancing was larking about and signing each other’s shirts. One last burst of youthful joy in the early spring sunshine before a dreaded lockdown with their families. Exams cancelled. Lives put on hold. Teenage kicks suppressed. The schools are remaining open for children of key workers and children at risk, living with abusive families. For the later, you fear for the ones who will slip through the cracks.
Walking through the dwindling crowds of Buchanan Street, days before the lockdown bites, the street evangelicals was still out – bible-thumping, foot-stamping, moral-hectoring. They must be loving this, a reaping of the godless, finally their warnings coming true.
“Fear God!” bellows one of them through a cheap microphone and speaker. Mate we’ve broken God. It’s Mother Nature you should be fearing.
Fire, locusts, floods, heatwaves and now coronavirus.
Do you think she’s trying to tell us something?
Coming soon – lockdown, empty streets, wild rumours and the horror of London’s plague streets.