Monday, 20 March 2023

Eaton: Putting the COVID-19 pandemic in perspective

We've heard of the four horsemen of the apocalypse bringing disaster to the world in the form of: fire, war, plague and floods. Looks like they have been working overtime this past year with only floods missing so far.

To keep things in perspective, think back to 1665 when a British civil servant named Samuel Pepys, age 32, kept a diary of his life in London.

His youth and high social status may have saved him from becoming one of the estimated 100,000 fatalities (around 20 percent of London’s population) of the disease, which was transmitted by fleas carried on rats.

Once infected, the chances of survival were minimal. Most people, as Daniel Defoe (later author of “Robinson Crusoe”) recorded “were immediately overwhelmed with violent fevers, vomiting, insufferable headaches, pains in the back.”

Coronavirus bears no comparison with the deadly bubonic plague but it’s fascinating to see the parallels between 1665 and 2020.

The first recorded plague deaths in London occurred in March but England’s war with Holland for control of the sea trade routes hogged the headlines that spring.

Pepys mentioned the plague in a casual line at the end of April and then on May 24 wrote: “To the coffee-house, where all the news is of the Dutch being gone out, and the plague growing upon us in this town; and some of the remedies against it: some saying one thing and some another.”

Despite the continued growth of the plague, Pepys remained unconcerned, dining out most evenings and “trying on his new camelott (camel or goat hair) suit, the best that ever I wore in my life” on June 1.

A few days later Pepys saw the effects of the plague for the first time in Drury Lane (a theater distinct), writing in his diary “two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us!’ writ there which was a sad sight to me.”

His depression evaporated following a naval victory over the Dutch off the east coast and he continued his “business as normal” approach, even in August, when the Bills of Mortality (CDC reports) recorded over 6,000 burials each week (which rose to 8,000 in September).

In fact, Pepys continued to work so hard, he complained on Aug. 9, that he went to bed early because he was “disturbed with over-much business today.”

Many took precautions while others flaunted the rules. As Pepys recorded the pandemic in his diary, many Londoners, including most doctors, lawyers, and merchants, fled to the safety of the countryside. Those who remained often wore masks resembling bird beaks, stuffed with herbs, believed to nullify the virus.

Theaters and courts were closed, all sports shut down and trade with other cities at home and abroad was suspended. Scotland closed its border with England and, according to the Museum of London, “people’s lives and businesses suffered terribly because so many were shut in their homes and forced to beg or steal food and money because the plague had such an adverse effect on trade.”

“Lord!” wrote Pepys on Aug. 16. “How sad a sight it is to see the streets so empty of people.” But again, his dejection was brief. Next day he went boating on the Thames with four friends, dropping anchor near the estuary, “to supper mighty merry.”

However, Pepys wasn’t blasé about the plague. He refused to wear a new wig in case it was infected (hair was often taken from corpses) but he under­stood that life had to go on. Maybe reading Pepys would be more reassuring than watching today’s media.

There were no vaccines until nature came to the rescue when the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city later that year and is credited with reducing the epidemic to a trickle just like current vaccinations are designed to do.

Eventually, the plague disappeared after a year or so but made sporadic reappearances in later years.

So, what's different about today?

Source: “Diary of the Plague Years and the Great Fire of London,” by Samuel Pepys.

William G. Eaton lives in Lakeport, California.

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