Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ makes for startling reading these days. It is, in its own words, the “observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well publick as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665” and was “written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London.” This last bit is of course fake news. Defoe was five years old at the time of the plague and probably evacuated. The Journal is an imaginative reconstruction based on documents from the time and the supposed narrator, ‘H.F’, is an invention.
Set aside the historical setting and the specifics of the disease, however, and Defoe could easily be writing about the experience of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. It is possible to find reference in the journal to just about everything we have witnessed over these past months: from the early rumours of a new disease to the regular announcements of new infections and deaths; From the desperate efforts of the authorities to keep things under control, to the consequences as fear takes hold and people grow suspicious of one another. Things are very different now from the time in which Defoe was writing. Everything has changed, in fact, accept the people.
The Onset of the Infection
The journal opens with the memory of the news, which came in about September 1664, that the plague had come to Holland:
“It was about 1664 that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary Discourse, that the plague was return’d again in Holland; for it had been very violent there… in the Year 1663“
There were no newspapers at that time, to spread “Rumours and Reports of Things”, but they weren’t needed for the news to spread.
“Such things as these were gather’d from the letters of the Merchants and others who corresponded abroad, abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that these things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.”
Surely those lines could apply to the early stages of COVID-19. We have the media the now, for sure, but nonetheless, with Twitter and WhatsApp and good old-fashioned word of mouth, we spread the “rumours and reports of things” among ourselves in just the same way. During one of my last days at the office, a colleague passed on some intel she had received from a friend in the office next door with business links with China. “It’s much worse than they are saying” she said, “huge numbers dying” but they are covering it up. The reports that followed, from China, Italy and elsewhere merely compounded the effect.
The journal continues:
“The Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent it coming over; but it was all kept very private”
Then swiftly, and inevitably, in both 1664 and 2020, the plague arrived England, such is the nature of these things in an interconnected world.
Fearing the Worst
There is nothing quite so good as a fast-moving virus for striking fear in individuals and panic in a group. Physical threats, we might – just – be able to see and forestall, but invisible disease is something else:
“The Apprehensions of the People, were likewise strangely encreas’d by the Error of the Times; in which, I think, the People, from what Principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to Prophesies, and Astrological Conjurations, Dreams and Old Wives Tales, than ever they were before or since…“
One in particular, who, like Jonah to Ninevah, cry’d in the Streets, yet “forty Days, and London shall be destroyed.” I will not be positive, whether he said yet forty Days or yet a few Days…
These Things terrified the People to the last Degree; and especially when two or three Times, as I have mentioned already, they found one or two in the Bills, dead of the Plague at St Giles.”
These ‘Apprehensions’ surely bear comparison to the ‘worst case scenarios’ upon which Governments based so much of their planning. Sure, the latter have a greater air of sophistication about them than do the ‘Astrological Conjurations’ – they were based on models after all – but they too are stabbing in the dark at what might be afoot.
Public Health Intervention
Given the scale of the threat, official authority cannot help but intervene. These days we have social-distancing, masks, lockdowns. Defoe’s journal records the ‘shutting up’ of houses by order of the Government, which like lockdowns today, had tremendously damaging side effects.
“I mentioned above shutting of houses up; and it is needful to say something particularly to that, for this part of the history of the plague is very melancholy, but the most grievous story must be told.“
The containment measure, which was ordered by the Lord Mayor’s office, meant that if illness was suspected, a house, along with all its inhabitants could be locked up for a period of a month, with guards placed outside.
“But after all that was or could be done in these cases, the shutting up of houses, so as to confine those that were well with those that were sick, had very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical, and which merited to have been considered if there had been room for it. But it was authorised by a law, it had the public good in view as the end chiefly aimed at, and all the private injuries that were done by the putting it in execution must be put to the account of the public benefit.”
It is doubtful to this day whether, in the whole, it contributed anything to the stop of the infection; and indeed I cannot say it did, for nothing could run with greater fury and rage than the infection did when it was in its chief violence, though the houses infected were shut up as exactly and as effectually as it was possible.
Defoe’s journal goes on to describe the effect being ‘shut up’ had on a family.
A house in Whitechappel was shut up for the sake of one infected maid, who had only spots, not the tokens come out upon her, and recovered; yet these people obtained no liberty to stir, neither for air or exercise, forty days. Want of breath, fear, anger, vexation, and all the other gifts attending such an injurious treatment cast the mistress of the family into a fever, and visitors came into the house and said it was the plague, though the physicians declared it was not. However, the family were obliged to begin their quarantine anew on the report of the visitors or examiner, though their former quarantine wanted but a few days of being finished. This oppressed them so with anger and grief, and, as before, straitened them also so much as to room, and for want of breathing and free air, that most of the family fell sick, one of one distemper, one of another, chiefly scorbutic ailments; only one, a violent colic; till, after several prolongings of their confinement, some or other of those that came in with the visitors to inspect the persons that were ill, in hopes of releasing them, brought the distemper with them and infected the whole house; and all or most of them died, not of the plague as really upon them before, but of the plague that those people brought them, who should have been careful to have protected them from it.
The Bills of Mortality
The Bills of Mortality make repeated appearances throughout the journal. Defoe’s narrator, HF, is as obsessed with them as we have been about the data which pour forth from Public Health England, the Office of National Statistics, and, right from the start he, and his contemporaries, is vigorous in his analysis of the numbers:
“The next Bill was from the 23d of May to the 30th, when the Number of the Plague was 17: But the Burials in St Giles’s were 53, a frightful number! Of whom they set down but 9 of the plague: But on examination more strictly by the Justices of the Peace, and at the Lord Mayor’s Request, it was found there were 20 more, who were really dead of the Plague in that Parish but had been set down of the Spotted-Feaver or other Distempers, besides others concealed.”
HF’s scepticism causes him to investigate deaths from other causes.
“Besides, the Weekly Bills themselves at that time, evidently discover this Truth; for while there was no Mention of the Plague, and no Increase, after it had been mentioned, yet it was apparent, that there was an Encrease of those Distempers which bordered upon it, for Example there were Eight, Twelve, Seventeen of the Spotted Fever in a Week, when there was none, or but very few of the Plague.”
Just what is it, precisely, that is being counted in the official toll of deaths from COVID-19. Who has been left off that should have been included? Whose sad passing has been attributed to Covid and was in fact caused by something else. We too find good reason to doubt the Bills of Mortality.
Defoe’s journal tells the story of two brothers and a friend who, after their employment in the city was ended by the plague, resolve to get “out of the reach of the dreadful infection” and they head north west, out of London. They find that when people thought they were coming from the country, rather than from the plague-ridden city, they “talked to them” and “let them come into a public-house”. It soon “came into their heads to say, when they should be inquired of afterwards, not that they came from London, but that they came out of Essex”. They even got a piece of paper to prove it.
“To forward this little fraud, they obtained so much favour of the constable at Old Ford as to give them a certificate of their passing from Essex through that village, and that they had not been at London”
The certificate did its job.
“This certificate directed to the next constable that was at Homerton, one of the hamlets of the parish of Hackney, was so serviceable to them that it procured them, not a free passage there only, but a full certificate of health from a justice of the peace who upon the constable’s application granted it without much difficulty; and thus they passed through the long divided town of Hackney (for it lay then in several separated hamlets), and travelled on till they came into the great north road on the top of Stamford Hill.”
These days they would be presenting a QR code.
The End of the Story
Towards the end of the journal, we read that the plague peaked, and then “began to assuage”. Narrator HF learns from a Doctor friend that more people were surviving the infection than before.
“for though a vast multitude are now everywhere infected, and as many every day fall sick, yet there will not so many die as there did, for the malignity of the distemper is abated”
In the weeks that follow, HF sees that his friend is right – the mortality numbers keep shrinking. The people of the city see it too, and their attitude to “the Distemper” changes markedly.
“Such is the precipitant disposition of our people (whether it is so or not all over the world, that’s none of my particular business to inquire), but I saw it apparently here, that as upon the first fright of the infection they shunned one another, and fled from one another’s houses and from the city with an unaccountable and, as I thought, unnecessary fright, so now, upon this notion spreading, viz., that the distemper was not so catching as formerly, and that if it was catched it was not so mortal, and seeing abundance of people who really fell sick recover again daily, they took to such a precipitant courage, and grew so entirely regardless of themselves and of the infection, that they made no more of the plague than of an ordinary fever, nor indeed so much. They not only went boldly into company with those who had tumours and carbuncles upon them that were running, and consequently contagious, but ate and drank with them, nay, into their houses to visit them, and even, as I was told, into their very chambers where they lay sick.”
The public health officials were, of course, not pleased about this reckless conduct.
“The physicians opposed this thoughtless humour of the people with all their might, and gave out printed directions, spreading them all over the city and suburbs, advising the people to continue reserved, and to use still the utmost caution in their ordinary conduct, notwithstanding the decrease of the distemper, terrifying them with the danger of bringing a relapse upon the whole city, and telling them how such a relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole visitation that had been already.”
But their efforts were to no avail.
But it was all to no purpose; the audacious creatures were so possessed with the first joy and so surprised with the satisfaction of seeing a vast decrease in the weekly bills, that they were impenetrable by any new terrors, and would not be persuaded but that the bitterness of death was past; and it was to no more purpose to talk to them than to an east wind; but they opened shops, went about streets, did business, and conversed with anybody that came in their way to converse with, whether with business or without, neither inquiring of their health or so much as being apprehensive of any danger from them, though they knew them not to be sound.
As a result, according to HF, the infection rate did creep up again, as did the deaths, but not in the way that was feared: “the distemper was spent, the contagion was exhausted”. There were some further waves of infection, as we say now, but they were nothing like what had been before.
“And wonderful it was to see how populous the city was again all on a sudden, so that a stranger could not miss the numbers that were lost.”
Are we getting to this stage now with Covid? We can but hope.