Family, History, Research

Strange and unprecedented times? No, not really..

My daughter keeps asking if coronavirus is like the plague and each time I respond, I start to explain “no, not really..” and I try and work my way through the virus v. bacteria debate and the severity of the illnesses and physical symptoms until I think I’ve got all the facts covered.

Then she blind-sides me and asks to write a ‘news report’ from the time of the Great Plague (one of the perks of lockdown schooling – picking her own topics to learn). So I look through the facts with her and wouldn’t you know it? It becomes harder to say “no, not really..” and I have to reframe my thinking.

Let me explain..

A familiar sight on the streets of London in 1665


Plague and its wildfire-spread has been a constant bane of humanity since the first seafarers began exploring Earth’s continents. Known in the fourteenth century as the Black Death, Pestilence or the Great Mortality (amongst other dread-inducing descriptors), the bacteria spread from country to country via flea and rat, ship and cargo, passed rapidly through human populations via flea bites, bodily fluids, infected tissue and human coughs. The disease swept through Asia, Africa and Europe, over millenia, killing indiscriminately.

The bacterium Yersina Pestis has been recorded from Ancient Egypt, Neolithic Sweden, Bronze Age Russia, Iron Age Armenia, Roman Byzantine Empire, recurrent outbreaks in the Medieval Mediterranean, China and India and in every century since. The deadly bacteria still hovers menacingly in modern day Madagascar and sub-Saharan Africa, occasionally surfacing to wreak its special brand of havoc.

Yersina Pestis, carried by fleas, originated in North Africa, India and China, spread by Nile rats and Indian Black rats and Oriental rats as global trade increased with the industrialisation of the world. The rats hopped off in ports around the globe or merchants handed infected goods over, spreading the bacterium throughout global trade-routes. in many ways, the Plague was the disease of global trade. Nowadays, it’s treatable with antibiotics, if the people in need of the medicines can access them.

In the year 1665, an outbreak of the Plague arrived in England, this time known as the Great Plague. The United Kingdom’s response to the arrival of the plague is worth considering. Charles II had been restored to the monarchy after the death of Oliver Cromwell (whose head still stood on a pole outside Whitehall), Samuel Pepys worked for the Admiralty and six-year old Daniel Defoe (later to write about the plague with reference to his Uncle’s diaries) lived in City of London, which bustled with wealthy nobles and merchants, alongside the poorest city-dwellers. The plague had been raging in mainland Europe for many years and trading vessels arriving from infected cities had been quarantined on the Thames before arrival. The quarantine wasn’t enough to stop the spread of Yersina Pestis.

The Great Plague spread on fleas and rats in the early months of 1665, outwards from the docks to the poor parishioners of St. Giles and as rumours of suspicious deaths reached the Privy Council, Justices of the Peace were sent to investigate. Where the JP’s discovered plague-affected victims, entire households were sealed-up.

The year progressed and May brought warmer weather and further instances of plague-related deaths. The Privy Council closed ale houses and limited the use of lodging houses, but the number of cases in St. Giles continued to rise and constables began to quarantine the area.

The measures came too late and by July of the same year, the plague ran rampant through the City. Charles II fled for the country with his court, merchants and professionals closed their businesses and left London. The Lord Mayor remained to govern an eerily quiet London and others (including Samuel Pepys) chose to stay behind. Clergymen, physicians and apothecaries remained to carry out their duties, tending to the scared and sick inhabitants of London. As time passed, other city-dwellers wishing to leave, could only do so with a Certificate of Good Health, which became harder to obtain as the disease raged on.

It became illegal to go to theatres and football games and other group activities. People displaying signs of sickness were told to isolate in their own homes, eventually a red ‘X’ was to be painted on infected household’s doors. Fires were lit to cleanse the air, cats and dogs were killed in their thousands to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and plague doctors experimented with ‘cures’.

By September 1665, the Great Plague had peaked and Charles II returned to his London court in February of the following year (just seven months before the City would be ravaged by flame in the Great Fire of London).

Were there any details in the basic Great Plague list-of-facts worth comparing to Covid-19?

Well actually, yes.

Government Response to Plague Outbreak in London, 1665:

  • Quarantine
  • Self isolation
  • Closure of shops and businesses
  • Closure of ale houses and lodging houses
  • Banning of theatre, sports events and group meetings

Wealthy Residents’ response to Plague Outbreak in London, 1665:

  • Flee the City to take up residence in country homes
  • (or) Stay and wait out the disease

Poor Residents’ response to Plague Outbreak in London, 1665:

  • Banned from leaving the City
  • Banned from leaving their homes

Care-giving services response to Plague Outbreak in London 1665:

  • Continue caring for and comforting the vulnerable, sick and dying
  • Continue comforting and bringing hope to the residents of London.

Sound familiar?

This virulent bacteria has plagued the world population for a very, very long time. But it is not alone in its contagious, deadly spread.  Bacterium and  viruses alike want to spread and devour, to survive. Smallpox, measles, yellow fever, dysentry, typhoid, cholera, coronavirus.. Deadly diseases all, and largely managed (or avoided) through medical research and application.

The lockdown grocery shopper


The common coronavirus ancestor is thought to have developed some 10,000 years ago, from a much older strain of the virus. It is usually carried in bats and birds but passes onto other animals and humans who have contact with virus-carrying creatures. Over the last twenty years, human coronavirus strains and diseases have occurred repeatedly in Saudi Arabia and China, spreading outwards at alarming rates before waning out and disappearing from the public perception.

This time, the Covid-19 coronavirus has spread across the globe in a matter of weeks through travel and trade. Holiday-makers, modern-day explorers, business-travellers and traders have brought the coronavirus back from their travels and the virus is thriving in human hosts from China to America. but the process is the same.. the virus hitches a ride and spreads through human contact.

Even so, this Coronavirus Pandemic that we are living through right now has taken us all by surprise. We hear the phrases ‘strange times’ and ‘unprecedented times’ over and over and we start to believe that we are the only generations who have had to live through these measures, but this is nothing new. The human response to deadly contagion has been established for centuries: Shield ourselves from the problem until it goes away (unless you’re a care-worker, chronicler, essential worker or a government official keeping order).

Our pubs and theatres are closed; businesses, shops and schools are closed; sports events and public meetings are banned; we are in lock-down, self-isolating in our houses with our families whether we are sick or not. And all the while, nurses and doctors tend to the sick; police and military personnel keep law and order; shop-workers keep our shelves stocked; kind-hearted individuals provide essential care to the vulnerable; councils run on skeleton staff and journalists document these ‘precedented times’.

There is something comforting, I think, in realising that we are not alone in history in facing the constriction of isolation and aiming to halt the spread of a deadly, indiscriminate disease. We are well-placed in these times, to ride out the course of the pandemic with hindsight to guide us and foresight to keep us positive and ready to take up our places in the world once the threat of the virus has subsided.

Patience is more easily achieved with a bit of perspective, service to our neighbours and a heavy helping of gratitude. And there’s nothing like the long-view over centuries and millennia of human existence to provide a strong dose of perspective.

Be it bacterium or viruses that threaten us, rest assured, we’ve lived through this as a species before, and every time the diseases are encountered, we learn more about them and learn to adjust our behaviours and become more prepared for future outbreaks.

.. And next time my daughter asks if living through the coronavirus lockdown is like living through the Great Plague, I’ve got my answer prepared.

Frontline workers need protection

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