From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Eyam

April 9th

My nine-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, devoted 15 minutes yesterday evening to reading to me on Face Time – and it wasn’t even my bedtime.  Her reading matter of choice was a page or two of short articles from Whizz Pop Bang, ‘the awesome science magazine for children.’   The articles were short but highly informative and didn’t shy away from using fully-fledged scientific terminology.  I was very impressed by the fluency with which Hannah read some quite technical material, only stumbling a little over ‘palaeontology’ – for which she could very easily be forgiven as I suspect it would floor the majority of our adult population – and I learned a good deal about gargantuan prehistoric turtles 100 times the size of our largest present-day turtles, and a massive explosion in the far reaches of outer space that generated an outsized black hole.

I had no urgent need to learn about prehistoric turtles or black holes, and Hannah clearly didn’t have any need to practice her already advanced reading skills, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was some kind of contact in a world in which the kind of contact we usually have with our much-loved children and grandchildren is impossible.  And that contact was very much the highlight of another day of social isolation.  Thank you, Hannah.  

As we learn to come to terms with the loss of physical contact, the loss of closeness, with many of the people we love, I find my thoughts often turning to Eyam.  The parallels are, fortunately, not all that close (at least we hope they aren’t), but in present circumstances it is salutary to think of the nobility and self-sacrifice of the entire population of a 17th century village who voluntarily quarantined themselves and waited to die so that the surrounding villages and cities would not be contaminated by the bubonic plague they had accidentally brought into the region.  They had no ICUs, no respirators, no personal protective equipment, no antidote; they just waited to die themselves, and in the meantime buried their dead.  Over a period of 14 months of lockdown, those dead numbered over 75% of their families and fellow-villagers.

Most of us are so much more fortunate than the villagers of Eyam in that we know why people are dying, we know how to keep ourselves safe (even if some of us, unlike them, don’t have the good sense to do it), and we know that a vaccine will, once it can be developed, put an end to this plague.   None of which will be of any comfort whatever to those who are currently losing people they love and are, in some instances, even worse off than the villagers of Eyam in that they can’t even bury their dead.  But, when it comes to the daily experience of living in a kind of collective quarantine, where we are perhaps luckiest in comparison with our 17th century forebears is in our often taken-for-granted communication technology.  There weren’t many telephones, tablets or televisions in Eyam.   Nobody in Eyam could have been read to by a granddaughter living in the next village.

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