Covid 19 and Defoe
Remember when we all used to complain about having no time to write? For all the precious lives and ordinary pleasures that the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of, this global calamity has bestowed on some academic writers a rare and unexpected gift: a calendar uncluttered by meetings, social events, or conference travel. Yet those of us fortunate enough to have been granted such a windfall may find ourselves frittering away our days on Sudoku puzzles or Netflix movies, then lying awake at night asking ourselves, “Why am I not getting any writing done?”
Why should history matter in times of crisis? The question is worth pondering. Historians and history teachers are not on the front lines, fighting for people’s lives or providing food and medical supplies. Even their valuable knowledge and understanding of the crises of the past can seem useless and impractical. Every epidemic is different, after all; we can’t very well apply the methods of former times to the current crisis. And yet—history sheds crucial light on the dynamics and behaviors of epidemics over time and space. Studying the experience of our predecessors often offers much-needed lessons in humility and humanity. In the long list of epidemics that have hit western societies over the centuries, the Great Plague of London, which claimed the lives of 100,000 people in the mid-1660s, is perhaps not the obvious case to delve into. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the HIV/Aids pandemic of the 1980s certainly seem more relevant to the current situation. And yet, despite its greater distance in time, the plague epidemic of 1665 highlights a number of significant patterns common to modern epidemics. It also reminds us that even the darkest of human crises eventually give way to luminous days. Compared to most early modern epidemics, the plague of 1665 left a very wide range of documentary traces. Modern historians, indeed, have access to official orders and laws; statistical data and news bulletins; medical and religious treatises; poems and prayers; and even cartoons and works of art. Most importantly, we possess a number of eyewitness accounts of the events. Of course, scholars frequently turn to the diary of Samuel Pepys, a dedicated civil servant and a keen observer of Restoration London’s social, economic, and political life. Most, however, prefer Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. This is a most curious document, halfway between the documentary essay and the historical novel. Defoe did live in London in 1665 and 1666, but he was only a child at the time. His account of the events, published decades after they took place, is therefore not based on his own observations. Despite this time bias, however, evidence indicates that Defoe founded his narrative on interviews conducted among older friends and family members, and on a close reading of the statistical evidence. It is also telling that Defoe waited until 1722 to write and publish his account of the plague: only two years earlier, a virulent plague epidemic—the first in over five decades in Western Europe—had visited the Mediterranean port of Marseille. His timing suggests that Defoe, besides having a flair for the dramatic, wrote the Journal of the Plague Year as a cautionary tale for the generations to come.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the interconnected nature of our world – and that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Only by acting in solidarity can communities save lives and overcome the devastating socio-economic impacts of the virus. In partnership with the United Nations, people around the world are showing acts of humanity, inspiring hope for a better future.