Commentary: Plague management in the past may offer lessons for the present

Better known for “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moll Flanders,” Daniel Defoe was also the author of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” a historical novel published in 1721. The novel concerns the Great Plague of 1665, and is written from the perspective of HF, a fictious London shopkeeper. By all accounts, the novel accurately depicts events at a time when hospital care was in its infancy and doctors and nurses (if one could afford them) made house calls. Only one “pest house” in all of London existed to quarantine the afflicted.  Comparison to the current pandemic reveals significant differences and parallels.

The novel begins in September 1664 with rumors of plague in Holland. The English Government “had a true account” of the circumstances and held “several councils” on “ways to prevent it coming over; but all was kept very secret.”

In December, three deaths of “the distemper” were recorded in the “weekly bills of mortality” in the Drury Lane neighborhood. Thereafter, compared to the previous year, the weekly bills showed a minor increase in mortality rates for surrounding eastside neighborhoods but few were identified as distemper.

In May and June of 1665, however, the “bills rose high” and “the richer sort of people” from “the west part of the city ... thronged out of town with their families and servants in a most unusual manner.” They brought the infection to the countryside.

In 2020, a few of the one percent did flee to luxury bunkers and yachts. For the rest of America, shelter in place was generally feasible and preferred.  Executive Orders in some states preventing those who had or could rent vacation homes from “thronging” to the countryside delayed the spread of the coronavirus to many rural communities.

As the London infections of 1665 began to spread near HF’s neighborhood, he and his brother debate whether HF should leave the city and abandon his shop. HF elects to stay observing that “we perceived the infection kept chiefly in the out-parishes, which being very populous, and fuller also of poor, the distemper found more to prey upon.” But the protagonist soon learns that the infection, like the coronavirus, did not contain itself within parish or jurisdictional boundaries.

As the distemper spread, London’s remaining populace found themselves in “apprehensions ... strangely increased by the error of the times” and “more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams and old wives’ tales than they ever were before or since.”

When positive prophecy failed to deliver, “quacks” rushed in with “multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives” designed to “pick” the peoples’ “pockets” instead of protecting them from the plague. One need only perform an Internet search of coronavirus scams to see the 21st century expression of this same phenomena.

By Orders, dated July 1, 1665, the London government finally did address the crisis. The Orders prohibited all manner of assemblies, restricted the operation of ale taverns and coffee houses and appointed examiners of the sick. A person found to have “the infection of the plague” would have their house “shut up” by a constable and their family and other household members all confined.

The house would be marked with the sign of plague, the doors padlocked from the outside, and  “watchmen” assigned to surveil the house round the clock to ensure that no one left or entered.
Individuals who did visit a house of the “sickness” were subject to having the home that they “inhabiteth be shut up for certain days at the examiners direction.”

By the time these orders were put into effect, the plague was in full rage. The measures did slow the spread outside shut up homes, but those confined within suffered. Entire families often succumbed to the infection. A distinct minority of individuals refused to observe the restrictions on assembly and frequenting taverns thus spreading the infection through, in HF’s view, “this vile work.”

HF also reflects on asymptomatic spreaders citing the opinion of physicians “that one man who may have really received the infection and knows it not ... may give the plague to a thousand people; and they to greater numbers in proportion.”

After weekly mortality bills showed a decrease in deaths in September of 1665, the “second wave” that today’s physicians warn about was set in motion. More than a few of the London populace started to assemble and carry on their lives as before. Physicians of the time opposed this “thoughtless humor of the people with all their might” but to little effect.  “The audacious creatures were so possessed of this first joy … that they were impenetrable by any new terrors, and would not be persuaded but that the bitterness of death was past; and it was to no more purpose to talk to them than to an east wind.” The mortality bills swelled again in November and “cost a great many lives.”

It is a sobering account of what may next be in store for 2020 if we do not heed that lesson of history. 

When the time comes in our November to assess American leadership’s effectiveness in initially confronting the coronavirus, another celebrated author may offer guidance. In his classic work, “The Prince,” Niccolo Machiavelli noted that the test a leader must pass in similar circumstances has long standing historical precedent:

“For the Romans did in these cases what all wise princes should do, who consider not only present but also future discords and diligently guard against them; for being foreseen they can be easily remedied, but if one waits until they are at hand, the medicine is no longer in time as the malady has become incurable; it happening with this as with those hectic fevers, as doctors say, which at their beginning are easy to cure but hard to recognize, but in course of time when they have not at first been recognized and treated, become easy to recognize and difficult to cure.”
Samuel Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and author of “What Justice Looks Like.”