From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Public Good and Private Mischief

September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.

Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event.  Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure.   He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old.  His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience.  He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city.  Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn.  The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more.  The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition. 

In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected.  Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy.  Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.

Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis.  In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill.  Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:

“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).

So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village.  A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday.  On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents.  Defoe’s principle still applies.  ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens.  Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford.  In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it.  As we must. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Unprecedented”?

May 16th

How often have we heard government Ministers bleating that the global Covid-19 pandemic is “unprecedented” by way of an excuse for their incompetence?  I can only conclude that they either rely on different dictionaries from the ones I use, or that they prefer not to go near a dictionary because they like words to mean what they want them to mean rather than what they do actually mean.  The Oxford Concise defines ‘unprecedented’, entirely unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘having no precedent’ or ‘unparalleled’; and my Chambers, which often allows itself to be more idiosyncratic than the Oxford, defines it, no less unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘of which there has been no previous instance.’  

One doesn’t need to go back as far as the Black Death, which killed an estimated 50 million people, including roughly 60% of the entire population of Europe, in the 14th century to know that it is wholly untrue to claim that Covid-19 is ‘unparallelled’ as a pandemic.  Three centuries later, in 1665, the plague is estimated to have killed more than 20% of the population of London.  Even with a sequence of potential further ‘spikes’, Covid-19 seems unlikely to devastate London as badly as that, in spite of its being, thus far, our worst hit city.  But there is no need to delve too far back in history to find precedents and parallels:  the 20th century provided at least three comparable pandemics.

The 1918 H1N1 ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic killed at least 30 million people world-wide.  Estimates of the death toll range from 30 to 100 million and the disease often manifested itself far more rapidly and dramatically than Covid-19, with some people waking up feeling well in the morning but dying before the end of the day.  The H2N2 ‘Asian’ influenza pandemic in 1957-8 resulted in well over a million deaths, with 40-50 percent of the world’s population being infected.  By early 1958 as many as 9 million people in UK are estimated to have been victims, with over 600 deaths in one week being recorded in October 1957.  And in 1968 the H3N2 ‘Hong Kong’ flu pandemic was responsible for around 3 million deaths, with some 30,000 deaths in UK.  That virus spread so rapidly that an estimated 500,000 people had been infected within two weeks of the disease being identified.  This century, the Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-15, and the rest of the world was only spared because Ebola, unlike the other three viruses mentioned above, doesn’t spread through the air.   So precisely what is supposed to be ‘unprecedented’ about Covid-19?

It is, of course, possible that those among our English Nationalist Cabinet Ministers who aren’t deliberately lying when they tell us that Covid-19 is ‘unprecedented’ are simply too dim to know what the word means, and think it means “unpredictable”.  It would be interesting to know precisely what the average IQ is of a Cabinet that still apparently thinks that a hard Brexit is a good idea, even in present circumstances.  But even if they do think Covid-19 couldn’t have been predicted, they are wrong.  In a TED talk in April 2015 Bill Gates described the situation very starkly: ‘We are not ready…. We need to get going because time is not on our side.  If we start now we can be ready for the next epidemic.’   

But our ideologically-driven UK government was far too busy being obsessed with its ‘austerity’ shibboleth and its suspicion of foreigners to ‘get going’ on anything else.  The State had to be shrunk; the cost of public services, including the NHS, had to be cut; the funding available to the local councils responsible for social care needed to be driven down (too bad about the consequential increase in childhood poverty and reliance on food-banks); and so on.   Making life as difficult as possible for immigrants, including asylum seekers, also kept government busy.  Not being ready for the next epidemic has inevitably resulted in a peace time ballooning of the National Debt with few, if any precedents.

Talking about the Covid-19 pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is, whether deliberately duplicitous or simply ignorant, a denial of history:  a convenient forgetting both of the other pandemics that have ravaged the world in the past, including the relatively recent past, and of the many warnings of the likelihood of equally devastating pandemics in the future.  As George Santayana said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  

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.