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Has Our Response To Health Crises Changed: Comparing The Plague Of 1665 And Pandemic Of 2020

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Progress is by far the most powerful and profound of all the delusions that humans have taught themselves to make sense of an otherwise bewildering reality. Particularly in times of grave crisis such as the one we are facing now, one is led to consider the delusion of progress more critically. Humans have always fancied themselves to be the chosen species on the basis of their unparalleled scientific and technological awareness, and it is, in fact, based on the strong foundations of techno-scientific discoveries that the delusion of progress most stably stand. And yet, time and again, nature’s inscrutable ways have left us astounded and shaken our vulnerable and pitiful existence to the ground.

As the coronavirus wreaks havoc around the world, the promise of techno-scientific evolution has once again been belittled by nature’s fury. Despite all the technological advancements and more so in an age where we are speaking of genetic engineering, a variety of flu has brought the world to a terrifying standstill. As the loss of lives continues to sour, one may indeed find confidence in the sentiments expressed by Daniel Defoe in Journal of the Plague Year in the middle of the seventeenth century, when a deadly plague hit England in 1665.

“It was a very ill time to be sick in, for if anyone complained, it was immediately said he had the Plague.”

Today, when one coughs or sneezes, one is shaken with fear of the deadly flu. It is interesting to read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague to reflect upon the sentiments and condition of our age so that we may realise how primitive our responses are when faced with a pandemic, despite the regular dose of techno-scientific fantasies we consume; and dare ask where does science and technology evaporate when we need them the most, considering we don’t even have the supply of essential things met to stay safe, if not win the war against unknown viruses.

It is worthwhile to see how one of the most taxing problems has always been our attitude to such deadly epidemics, and an apathetic and indifferent attitude is a ticket to hell in such times, not only for you, but also for those who are close to you. Hence, Defoe’s journal opens with his great contemplation on his decision to stay in town or flee to a village to escape the plague. The attitude towards safety is the first key without which deadly consequences may erupt.

As Defoe reminds people presuming upon their professed pre-destinated notions and of every Man’s End being predetermined and unalterably before-hand decreed, they would go unconcerned into infected places, and converse with infected persons. By this means, they died at the rate of 10,000-15,000 a week.

Education seems to have no impact upon this apathetic streak in us to be indifferent to essential things until we have no way left to turn. Examples from Italy, Germany and now India show how this apathy can cause us great harm. People, when infected with diseases, turn, according to their economic standing, amok to unqualified doctors and quakers who have made it their business to prosper from people’s miseries. From Whatsapp University prescribing us unverified medication to people selling animal urine, these deceivers, quakers, and mountebanks have remarkably existed for ages.

Defoe writes how London was flooded with such people during the plague:

“On the other hand, it is incredible, and scarce to be imagin’d, how the Posts of Houses and Corners of Streets were plaster’d over with Doctors Bills, and Papers of ignorant Fellows; quacking and tampering in Physick, and inviting the People to come to them for Remedies; which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, (viz.) INFALLIBLE preventive Pills against the Plague. NEVER-FAILING Preservatives against the Infection. SOVEREIGN Cordials against the Corruption of the Air. EXACT Regulations for the Conduct of the Body, in case of an Infection: Antipestilential Pills. INCOMPARABLE Drink against the Plague never found out before. A UNIVERSAL Remedy for the Plague.”

From the selling of masks and sanitisers at exorbitant prices to Gurus and Maulwis giving mantras and tabiz, we still have people who would take absolutely no scruples in exploiting people’s grief. Now, I turn my attention to how, when medicine failed people, “regulation of the city”, as Defoe calls it, becomes the best cure. Governance then is not about relying most positively on our modern capacities; it means relying on our most primitive defense mechanism of retreating.

Even today, what we are renaming only as “janta curfew”, “lockdown” and “shutdown” are primitive ways to deal with the spread of grave diseases like plague. Social distancing is thus the most primitive of our response when our scientific and technological weaponry falls incapable. The success of these things is solely dependent upon our primitive instinct to retreat out of fear, and we have been following such collective retreats for ages.

According to Defoe’s journal notes:

“The Justices of Peace for Middlesex, by Direction of the Secretary of State, had begun to shut up Houses in the Parishes of St. Giles’s, in the Fields, St. Martins, St. Clement Danes, &c. And it was with success; for in several Streets, where the Plague broke out, upon strict guarding the Houses that were infected, and taking Care to bury those that died, immediately after they were known to be dead, the Plague ceased in those Streets. It was also observed that the Plague decreas’d sooner in those parishes after they had been visited the full than it did in the Parishes of Bishopsgate, Shoreditch, Aldgate, White-Chappel, Stepney, and others…”

It is utterly surprising to note that our current ministers are as helpless as the ministers during Defoe’s time and could only issue notices such as the one Defoe refers to as the proclamation issued on August 7, 1665, which mentions that No good means of Providence may be neglected to stay the further spreading of the great Infection of the Plague, doth find it necessary to prevent all occasions of publick Concourse’ until the current epidemic was resolved.” 

patients on hospital beds

And while we all must practise social distancing, we all should be thankful to those who are risking their lives to help us sail through this crisis. Defoe, in particular, notes their contribution thus:

“I can not but leave it upon record  that the Civil officers such as constables, Headboroughs, Lord mayor’s, Sheriff’s men as also Parish officers whose business it was to take charge of the poor, did their duties in general with as much courage as any, and perhaps with more, because their work was attended with more hazards, and lay more among the poor who were more subject to be infected and in the most pitiful plight when they were taken with the infection: but it must be added to that a great number of them. Indeed it was scarce possible it should be otherwise.”

In the long run, we should remember that we might have come a long way in evolution, but outbreaks such as the current one remind us of our place in the universe and urge us to come out from our delusions of progress and anthropocentric views. One can also ask fundamental questions as to how useful are science and technology in times of crisis? Why do we not have enough availability of medical facilities? Who knows these are windows to seek a better future in account not just for the human race but all life.

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