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Our not so distant past



I can’t be the only one who has, in recent weeks, found myself reaching for my dog-eared copy of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictional re-telling of the 1665 great plague of London – an epidemic that killed around 100,000 people. Defoe was only five when the plague struck and was probably evacuated from the beleaguered city; he likely recreated events from his uncle’s journals.

Richard Dawkins in Sydney promoting his book (Getty Images/Don Arnold)

The gothic depictions of piled up corpses, empty streets and overflowing cemeteries seemed otherworldly when I first read it six or seven years ago. Now they seem unsettlingly foreboding.

The book opens with an accounting of the burials performed in each parish, showing clearly that ‘from the Time that the Plague first began in St Giles’s Parish, it was observ’d, that the ordinary Burials increased in Number considerably.’

The daily ritual of checking the numbers, charting them and trying to predict the trajectory of the coronavirus has everyone playing at epidemiology. But these graphs are imperfect tools for predicting what’s to come. They have the veneer of empiricism, but the data is incomplete and the variables almost infinite.

These graphs and charts and projections (many put together by people with no public health experience) provide a sense that through the application of science, reason and the latest technology the virus can be conquered. The promise of a vaccine hovers over everything.

This seems to be reassuring for some, but it's worth keeping in mind that vaccines are, at their fastest, 12 to 18 months away. There isn’t necessarily a scientific quick fix for this.


'We live in an age in which nature is something to be tamed, harnessed and exploited, but the current pandemic shows just how dangerous these assumptions can be.'


The reality of death on an unmanageable scale internationally is a reminder of just how much the current crisis has in common with those of an earlier age.

In the northern Italian city of Bergamo, residents describe ‘a ghostly place where only ambulances and hearses are on the road at night’:

… the crematorium has started operating 24 hours a day. Coffins have filled up two hospital morgues, and then a cemetery morgue, and are now being lined up inside a cemetery church. The local newspaper’s daily obituary section has grown from two or three pages to 10, sometimes listing more than 150 names, in what the top editor likens to ‘war bulletins’.

The dead-carts have been replaced by hearse and the bodies are burnt rather than buried, but this scene is not altogether dissimilar to those depicted by Defoe:

I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug — for such it was, rather than a pit.

Unlike the coronavirus today, London’s inhabitants didn’t know what caused the plague. People dabbled in folk preventative measures and authorities took actions, like quarantining ships, but there was no known remedy. The rich fled the city, but, for the poor, it had to be endured.

There are many who are still bullish about easing restrictions sooner rather than later, pointing to the potential benefits of anti-viral drug treatments and the timeline for developing a vaccine.

We live in an age in which nature is something to be tamed, harnessed and exploited, but the current pandemic shows just how dangerous these assumptions can be. We can't slip into complacency.

It’s a reminder that, despite the extraordinary technological advancements of the last centuries, we have much more in common with those of 1665 London than we often care to admit. We are not invincible.



Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, COVID-19, vaccine



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Existing comments

A few days ago I watched the SBS Dateline program which featured Bergamo. It was sobering viewing. And I was reminded that no age group is immune to the virus, even as Australia's deaths have been in the more senior age groups. In the 1665 great plague of London there is a parallel with today: viruses do not discriminate. However, rich people did have a (sort of) advantage in having the means to flee. In the current pandemic all socio-economic groups are fairly equally at risk. Time to acknowledge we are dependent on a humble attitude towards nature and we can hope that profound change is achieved through this suffering.

Pam | 16 April 2020  

How valid a comparison can be made of the current to any plague of distant ages past? Dafoe's plague year ended with the dawn of the second Annus Mirabilis. The first, 1588, saw Catholic Spain's Flota Armada scattered by pro-British divine winds. 1666 saw the metaphoric winter of London's Great Fire, made glorious summer when an obviously Anglican God ensured defeat of the Calvinist Dutch. Our late horrific fire preceded by a year our present plague, but does the promise of another, a worldwide, Annus Mirabilis apply? My illustrative inference - pseudohistorical, unscientific - was a deliberate folly. Verbum sapienti sat est.

james marchment | 16 April 2020  

Interesting analogy Tim and yes it just goes to show how vulnerable we are to these outbreaks. They say that Covid 19 cant be spread by mosquitoes like Dengue and malaria and also that it cant be spread by air conditioning systems like Legionnaire's disease which contaminates hot water tanks, hot tubs, and cooling towers. Hygeine aside, it's self evident the virus has spread the fastest is on packed cruise ships and in high density population cities. We were on the Diamond Princess a few years back 1916 and there was an outbreak of Norovirus. Norovirus also spreads easily! In a few days 20% of the ships population fell ill and they declared a code red. With Covid19 the British registered ship carried 3711 pax and crew and had 712 infections or a rate of 19% infected. It is reported that 12 died. Thats a 1% mortality rate. The Spanish flu killed 50m to 100m people worldwide in 1919 and 15,000 in Australia. Far more than WW1 casualties. Unlike the black death which attacked the lymphatic system and killed 20m people, the other viruses and influenzas attack the lungs. No wonder they call pneumonia the friend of the undertaker.

Francis Armstrong | 17 April 2020  

A beautifully crafted reminder, appropriately in a Jesuit journal, that we are entrusted to take responsibility and use our brains to outwit this terrible scourge, instead of resorting to conspiracy theories or neo-Malthusian fatalism in trying to abate this pandemic. My great-grandparents, Dr and Mrs Mesquita, relocated themselves from Bombay to Poona to safeguard themselves and their family from the 1889–1890 flu pandemic, better known as the Asiatic or Russian flu, which killed about a million people worldwide. Alas, my great-grandfather, in tending to the sick and dying, employed the only medical skills known to health-professionals of the time and which consisted of quarantining, boiling all water and surgical equipment and using quinine. Within a year the pandemic took him and my great-grandmother, leaving children still in their teenage years, one of them my paternal grandmother, Florence. Although looked after by distant relatives, Granny and her brother were essentially on their own. She married at nineteen and her seventeen year-old brother gave her away at the altar. Years later she was part of the Women's Auxiliary in Calcutta during World War II, where her childhood experiences kicked in and she took in refugees evacuated from Burma by the Japanese invasion.

Michael Furtado | 17 April 2020  

I know what you mean, Pam, when you say that viruses do not discriminate. However, our response to them, rather than the virus itself, can and does reveal a remarkably different and callously discriminatory range of social and health policy affects that disproportionately hurt the poor. In the US African-Americans, who generally register at the bottom of the social ladder, are reported to have been dying like flies because, in the absence of a universal healthcare system and public housing in so affluent a country, they lack the resources available to the well-heeled to take out private insurance cover as well as to enter private property ownership market, both aspects of which account for their very high mortality rate at this time. Thus, when you add: 'In the current pandemic all socio-economic groups are fairly equally at risk', one would have to express a word of caution and wait to see what the research, when it is eventually conducted, has to reveal. In essence, its not the virus itself but what we have collectively done to prepare for natural disasters of this kind, as well as our collective response to them, that ought to be the focus of our scrutiny.

Michael Furtado | 18 April 2020  

We are all entitled to our personal opinion on all matters. On the origin of Covid 19 mine is: The genome of the virus, speaks for itself and where exactly in Wuhan it originated. To say it originated at the Wuhan market. Is like saying it originated on the Royal Princess. Time will tell.

AO | 18 April 2020  

Thanks Michael, point taken. I could have been more careful in my wording: what I meant to infer was that the virus is, and will be, well represented in all socio-economic groups. The poor, sadly, in all likelihood will be over-represented in total numbers. Something for us to ponder.

Pam | 19 April 2020  

Another true but politically unpalatable analogy for contemplation. We currently live with a virus that infects more than 39 million people world wide and kills over 1.2 million people each year. There exists no vaccine and no cure and everyone of the 39 million carriers is capable of infecting and killing anyone of any age. All, not only the elderly and infirm, are equally threatened by this virus known as the human immune deficiency virus (HIV). It also originated from animals consumed by human beings without proper precautions or preparation. Its mode of transmission from human to human is well established but we are not prepared to eliminate it by implementing the necessary behavioural restrictions. Human rights are far more important than human life it seems. And now the clamour arises for the restoration of human rights and civil liberties curtailed by Covid 19. The libertarians will respond by lifting the controls to the benefit of the economy and the detriment of the generations of our children and grandchildren to come. These viruses will kill a darned sight more of the future population of this planet than climate change. At least we can adapt to climate change but not to killer viruses. So why all this hoo-hah about isolation at astronomical financial cost when it comes to Covid 19, a virus no where near as dangerous?

john frawley | 21 April 2020  

This virus is not particularly novel. As the name Covid 19 as been described as. It is not. It's defining feature is it's NON - novelty. Previously we named virus by of some sign / description of symptoms eg: severe acute respiratory syndrome = SARS. WHO could have named the virus simply 'SARS2' and it would have both been accurate and descriptive. There is a high similarity between these two pathogens. Why obscure The relationship between the two viruses, by introducing another name of the virus?

AO | 23 April 2020  

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