Daniel Defoe on Covid-19

We are now deep in the year of Covid-19. Victims have been quarantined and hospitalized, and a small percentage have died. Governments around the world are reacting with varying degrees of urgency. In North America, sporting events have been canceled, and schools are closing. The rich have jetted off to their disaster bunkersleaving the rest of us to horde toilet paper and worry about how worried we should be, and what, if anything, we should do.

This newsletter’s only advice is that it’s an excellent time to stay indoors and read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.

Defoe’s story is a work of historical fiction, published in 1722. The author was five years old when the bubonic plague decimated London in 1665. He nevertheless based his story on solid research and the journals of his Uncle Henry, who had stayed in London through the plague season. Defoe’s book is an excellent historical guide to what happened (even compared to Samuel Pepys’s diaries), and while the plague was a far more serious illness than what we’re dealing with, it offers a fascinating point of comparison.

The differences between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries are blindingly obvious in the opening pages of Defoe’s story. There were no public health authorities available to Londoners, no equivalent of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, and no twitter. There weren’t even newspapers. As a result, word of their epidemic spreads slowly, but it does spread.

Defoe’s narrative says Londoners knew primarily from merchants’ letters that the trading cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam had been hit hard with the plague in 1663. There were immediate concerns that the epidemic might hop the English Channel. The first signs that it had were a couple of deaths attributed to the plague in the west end in December 1664. Everyone in the city knew of these fatalities: word of mouth was the first social media, and it was powerful. Anxieties were heightened. Some blamed a dead Frenchman for importing the plague; others thought it had come from Holland in shipping containers.

After a couple more cases emerged in mid-February 1665, Londoners began to pay unusual attention to the weekly bills, which were publicly released mortality statistics compiled by parish clerks. St. Giles’s parish, in particular, had registered an increase in burials from sixteen or eighteen a week to as many as twenty-four. It seemed to be a hot spot for the disease. Londoners did not need guidance from authorities to avoid the affected neighborhood.

Cold winter weather and a lack of new cases resulted in a period of calm until April when the number of dead in St. Giles’s parish increased to thirty a week. The increase was officially attributed by parish clerks to spotted fever (eight cases) as opposed to the plague (just two cases). It would turn out that parish officials, in a misguided attempt to quell panic and protect their communities, were under-reporting the plague both by failing to report known deaths and by attributing to spotted fever or other less terrifying diseases what were, in fact, plague deaths. It was a combination of “knavery and collusion,” writes Defoe. (Here is a great map of how the epidemic spread in London.)

Parishioners were not stupid, however. Nor were they inclined to trust authority where deadly epidemics were concerned. When fatalities rose further in May, and instances of death-by-plague became more common, they grew alarmed. There being no proper police force or public health agency, they took matters into their own hands. For their own protection, they searched houses of those suspected of being sick with the plague to ensure no carriers were being sheltered. They also challenged the arithmetic of the parish clerks and discovered that people were dying of the plague every day, and that the infection had already “spread itself beyond all hopes of abatement." By end of May, the plague was claiming fifty victims a week. Roused by the people, the Lord Mayor’s office intervened and forced a more accurate reckoning by parish clerks.

In June, the weather turned hot and the plague began to do its worst. One hundred victims a week were counted in St. Giles’s parish alone. Led by King Charles II and his court, the nobility and the gentry skipped town, and brave parliamentarians, too. Wagons and carts and coaches filled with the better sort of people and their portable property crowded the thoroughfares on their way to their disaster bunkers, or country homes.

Young men saddled up horses, until there were no horses to be had, and left for small towns or quiet woods where many pitched tents. Still others bolted on foot. Merchants who owned ships boarded them and lived on the Thames. Almost everyone with a viable escape plan executed it.

People who lived in the countryside were not pleased to see hordes of plague-carrying Londoners headed in their direction. They blockaded roads. They refused to allow in the streets of their villages—let alone their homes or inns—anyone without a certificate of good health from the London Lord Mayor’s office. These were available to people who lived in unaffected parishes. Demand, naturally, was enormous.

Many were nevertheless stranded in the city. They had livelihoods or families that could not be left unattended, or they had nowhere else to go, or no way to get around. They spent their days trying to avoid danger, which was not always easy. Some people who had caught the plague did their best to conceal their disease in order to remain in communication with their neighbors and maintain access to food or services.

Defoe’s narrator has the option of leaving London. In fine reportorial fashion, he determines that he will stay and keep a journal of events, knowing that someday in the future there would be billions of us quaking under threat of coronavirus:

Because I know not but it may be of moment to those who come after me, if they come to be brought to the same distress and to the same manner of making their choice; and therefore I desire this account may pass with them rather for a direction to themselves to act by, than a history of my actings, seeing it may not be of one farthing value to them to note what became of me.

The bubonic plague killed between 70,000 and 100,000 Londoners in 1665, or about a fifth of the city’s population. In August and September, 8,000 were claimed each week and the dead were buried in mass pits. (It is to the plague year that we owe the practice of burying people six feet under). The poor, living in crowded and unsanitary conditions, supplied most of the victims, as is usually the case in epidemics. (It seems to be distinguishing characteristic of coronavirus, at least in these early days, that so many of its victim are globe-trotting, cruise-hopping elites, at least outside of China).

Defoe chronicles the lives and livelihoods lost to the epidemic, the human and economic catastrophes that developed. He is critical of the emergency measures enacted by authorities to prevent the spread of the disease. If one person in a house was found to be infected, or thought to be infected, all members of the household were instructed to remain indoors for a month. An armed guard stood outside to ensure orders were followed. “By this method,” writes Defoe, “whole households were condemned to a slow and dreadful death.” The book is preoccupied with the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of this policy, arguing instead that the sound should have been separated from the sick.

Other preoccupations of the narrative are the circulation of misinformation, and the proliferation of scam artists with quack cures, “a wicked generation of pretenders” ready to take advantage of a frightened public. In the fashion of the day, they posted (a word we still use) their deceits on street corners.

The people of London seem less disturbed by the con men than by physicians who left their patients unattended in sickness—“they were called deserters.” The public was also “very abusive” of the clergy who abandoned their flocks, “writing verses and scandalous reflections upon them,” and posting these on church doors.

“I wish I could repeat the very sound of those groans and of those exclamations that I heard from some poor dying creatures when in the height of their agonies,” writes Defoe, “and that I could make them that read this hear, as I imagine I now hear them, for the sound seems still to ring in my ears.”

We can be grateful that he can’t recreate those groans and exclamations. Even without them, we can smell the plague and feel the fear in his remarkable work.

Just how the plague eventually abated in London is unknown. Some credit the Great Fire, which followed in 1666 (below). Others believe the disease burned out on its own. Some say quarantine was effective, if anything can be called effective when 20% of the population perishes.

The positive message of Defoe’s book is that the plague seemed to bring people together and paper over their differences, especially of the religious variety. It had the power to “relieve the animosities among us and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on before.”

It’s too much to expect that coronavirus will heal all that ails us as a society, but even temporary relief from “the animosities among us” would be welcome.