Journal of the Plague Year—Can We Learn?

Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel DeFoe

Published 1722

Read Jan 2022

One of the book discussion groups to which this reader belongs chose this book for their consideration.  This reader first attempted to read a recent edition with illustrations but found it difficult to stay engaged with the relatively dry text.  Fortunately, an audiobook was located with a great reader which made the book much more interesting.  Certainly, one of the attributes of the book that doesn’t please this reader is that it is written in one long passage devoid of chapters or breaks. 

DeFoe suggests this book is the actual journal of someone who lived through the 1664 plague, perhaps an uncle.  DeFoe was only five at the time so had no direct knowledge of it.  He likely did a fair amount of research to put this material together which could appropriately be described as fictionalized journalism.

Of course, being in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic made this book quite popular and it is quite interesting to see the parallels between this pandemic and that one and to consider what is different and why.

Similarities: 

  • A regular public record of data was available:  then:  Bill of Mortality gave deaths and number due to the plague was published by parish; now New York Times, CDC, departments of health give various statistics regularly
  • Distrust that the public records were really reliable
  • Hope that the disease would stay away from a person’s parish/country—but of course not the case
  • The disease spread across the city/country
  • Attempts to prevent the spread via some sort of lockdown—then:  people locked in their residences in London; now:  declaration of lockdown by various governing bodies
  • Attempts to keep immigrants/foreigners out and blame them for the disease
  • Lack of understanding of the method of spread at least during the early days of the pandemic
  • Lack of effective treatment but desperate attempts to apply various unsubstantiated methods of cure despite their dangers
  • More rapid spread in areas of high density
  • More impact on the lower income population—in London due to cramped living quarters and higher concentration of fleas and lice; in the US lower income filling jobs that must be done in person so having increased exposure in the workplace
  • Lack of full understanding of the disease leads individuals to form their own opinions about the disease

Differences:

  • Scientific and epidemiological tools are currently available to study the disease at various levels—population, organ, molecule—which allowed rapid vaccine and treatment development compared as well as (eventually) an understanding of means of transmission

Th author spends much effort and pages on speculation of the means of transmission based on his observations and analysis of the data.  He also is quite adamant that locking people into their homes once someone in the household was infected both increased the spread within the household and did little to reduce spread into the community as it was easy to circumvent those assigned to keep watch of the household.

It is disappointing, frankly, that our reaction to Covid-19 has not been informed by the various bouts of the plague nor the various bouts of other deadly infectious agents—SARS, Eboli, Influenza.  The population in this country and others seem destined to fail to learn from any of this history and to have similar outcomes over and over.  Perhaps those reading this book and accounts of the 1918 influenza and other infectious disease pandemics might help break this cycle.  This reader isn’t convinced that will happen.  Those in the battle of treating the disease or dealing with various economic fallout of the pandemic have limited time to share their learning and will likely be fully consumed to getting their respective responsibilities back to somewhat normal as the pandemic winds down—-unfortunately. 

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