There Be a Plague upon Us….
….but Zooming Boomers and similar others may be taking the sting out of its tale
This coronavirus is a piece of work. Though in some cases it can be mild it kills in a particularly nasty way. We all know the symptoms. We all also know it has caused us to keep away from each other, cover our faces and wash our hands frequently. We are beginning to realise it encourages us to stare at our friends and family in little boxes on screens.
Pandemics are not unknown to us. They are not even unusual. Examples are Great Plague and Spanish Flu and of course Covid 19. They are not national or regional problems; they are global disasters.
They have similarities and they have differences.
The Great Plague was a bacterial infection. Spanish Flu and Covid 19 are viruses. Had there been antibiotics in 1665 they could have cured people of the disease and halted its spread. Indeed eventual treatment of buildings with lime wash and fumigation with saltpetre, brimstone and sulphur were effective at the time and modern 21st century experiments have proved the efficacy. We are now used to flu viruses and can control them reasonably well. We have vaccines for the prevention and effective relief for symptoms.
All three have led to excess deaths. 500 million people globally were affected by Spanish flu – about a quarter of the world’s population. 50 million died. The Great Plague of 1665 killed 100,000 in London. That was one-tenth of the population. We know it also spread worldwide. At the time of writing 66,357,090 cases of Covid 19 have been reported worldwide. Deaths so far have been 1,527,087. Small numbers compared with the Great Plague and Spanish Flu? Is this because we are controlling the spread better and/or treating it more successfully?
The Great Plague of 1665 and indeed other instances of the plague have been more in isolated pockets. This suggests that today people travel and mix more. An outbreak of the plague in 1900 was mainly confined to Glasgow. The village of Eyam in Derbyshire successfully isolated in 1665 and prevented the disease from spreading. This suggests that the plague was not spread as previously thought by fleas from plague-carrying rats. Indeed, a “track and trace” system used in the Glasgow outbreak found one cause of transmission to be a bed. Human lice and fleas may have carried the disease. Again modern experimentation shows this to be the case. A flea from a plague-infested rabbit was passed to another rabbit. Within twenty-four hours the second rabbit had the plague.
Isolation and quarantine are important to control all three. In the Great Plague years, houses of infected households were boarded up and the residents instructed to stay inside. Some towns closed and ships coming into London were quarantined. The theatres and pubs closed. Dr James Niven realised in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic that isolation was important and orchestrated the closing down of cinemas and schools. To date with Covid 19 in the UK we have had full lockdown, a circuit breaker lockdown and a tiered system.
All three diseases have been divisive. Spanish Flu affected the young more than the old – hence schools were closed earlier rather than later. Covid 19 affects the elderly more. The Great Plague affected poorer people more. We see now Covid 19 being worse amongst BAME communities though the reasons for that are not yet completely clear. Why is it also more prevalent in the north? In the circuit-breaker mini lockdown, the traffic seemed to me as busy as ever here in Greater Manchester. Why might that be? Theories abound and I have my own but the science hasn’t analysed it yet completely.
Yet beyond this, there is a particular divide with Covid 19 that didn’t exist with the other two: there are those that go online easily and happily and there are those who can’t or won’t.
The world population has honed its IT skills. The IT revolution has accelerated. Few people had heard of Zoom before the pandemic. Its share price has boomed. There was a dramatic dip when the release of a vaccine was announced. People started working from home and found that they liked it. Some will continue to do so when things return to normal. Teachers in all sections of education have learnt very quickly to work with their classes online. Some good practice has been established. People have become very creative. We might hold on to it in the future. Some of us think thank goodness for the Internet, social media, and radio and television broadcasts, even if sometimes we want to quieten it all.
But there is a divide here and to some extent, it coincides with the divide between the rich and the poor but not completely. Could and should we now be ensuring that every child has a tablet or lap top and a decent broadband connection at home and that all adults have the skills to stay comfortably connected?
This week I will probably spend about ten hours on Zoom, and another ten posting articles on the Internet, ten or so on answering emails, and an hour or so a day on social media. I’ll watch TV. I’ll listen to the radio. I’ll have little time to notice I‘m confined to quarters and if I choose carefully what I do, I needn’t spend too much time worrying about the pandemic either.
Astoundingly E.M Forster seems to have predicted much of this in his short story The Machine Stops (1909). The people in is his story missed real-life and stared at people on screens. I suspect we’ll be doing that for some time to come.
Many thanks to colleague Pauline Smith for her help with the research for this article.
E.M Forster The Machine Stops
The Great Plague, Channel 5, November 2020
All accessed 5 December 2020