COVID19 and the Great Plague of London

The many ways the response to COVID19 resembles the response to the Great Plague of London in 1665.

COVID19 and the Great Plague of London

From a tweet thread originally posted on April 22, 2020. Some edits have been made for format. Links lead to articles showing modern versions of what went on in history.

Ok, @latxcvi encouraged me so gather 'round for a history lesson on The Great Plague of London and how it relates to #COVID19 in a post I like to call Everything Old Is New Again

The Great Plague of London took place in 1665, one year before The Great Fire of London and entirely in a block of time we might call Living In London May Not Be All It's Cracked Up To Be Now That We Think About It.

The plague in question was mainly bubonic plague but pneumonic and  septicemic were part of the mix, because why should any form of plague feel left out.

Bubonic is Ye Olde Black Death, the nasty one with the  giant pustules and so on. Speticemic infects the blood, pneumonic  infects the lungs. One could possibly say pneumonic is therefore  "basically the flu" if one was, as for example, an idiot.

Bubonic is  also THE plague. The Black Death. The one which killed a third of Europe  back in the mid 1300s. We're going to focus on 1665 London for the most  part but there are two key things about reaction to The Black Death  which provide interesting comparisons to modern times.

1) When The Black  Death started to spread, scapegoats were sought for why that happened.  Said scapegoats included immigrants and Jewish people. Because whenever  there is a problem, be it plague or a lack of ice cream, the people  blamed are ALWAYS immigrants and Jewish people.

Someone in a car with an antisemetic sign saying "The real plague"

and 2) After the Black Death the impact on the population in terms of Those  Who Need Work Done (aka royals) and Those Who Actually Did The Fucking  Work For Little To No Money (aka everyone else) was such that the entire  system of feudalism got torn down.

I'm sure there's NO comparison we can make between #2 and modern times. Ahem.

Anyway, back to London 1665. An important  context to know is that while we're fast forwarding about 300 years from  The Black Death, plague was actually common during these times. Every 20 years or so there'd be an outbreak.

In point of fact, earlier that century there'd already been a round of plague so bad that for a time it  was considered The Great Plague of London. Making a plague version of  when Time Travelers go back to 1918 and get the reply of "What do you  mean 'World War ONE'?"

So people knew about plague and what it could do. There was no "Only 1530s kids remember buboes!" type thing going on here. Knowledge-wise, nobody had to reinvent the wheel. Which as you'll see is a mixed blessing. Also we're still using the same damn wheel.

Because people understood plague, they were already on the page  of plague being Very Very Bad. Thus you want to know if/when people may  have died from it because plague is never the kind of thing that stops at killing one person.

Because Twitter didn't yet exist to give people regular reasons to be depressed, they instead had Bills of Mortality.  These were weekly lists of how many deaths there were locally, tallied  by cause of death. Plague was important enough to get its own line item.

Picture of a Bill of Mortality

Now the thing is, plague is not actually a great thing to have in your home  town. Which, as I say, people knew. It's not great for leaders to admit  plague snuck in. It's not great for families to admit a relative got  it. So there was a lot of pressure to deny plague deaths. But Bills of  Mortality still needed to be updated. Which meant you might see things  like:

  • Plague: 0
  • Other Illnesses Which Are Totally Not Plague We Swear: 1,000 (up from 5 last week)

Eventually plague became so common you couldn't deny it and the numbers would be put on the bill. But even so there was still pressure to deny, and thus a  real count of the death toll required math and logic.

If plague numbers  are low but deaths due to fever, coughs, etc are exponentially growing,  odds are good it ain't just fever and coughs, yanno? Though this is  hard for some to believe.

Likewise there's the issue of how do you know it's a plague death? How do you test for plague in a world without testing? This too had issues. 1) the Bills of Mortality were kept by the church. Thus non-members like Jewish people and Quakers weren't included in any death counts.

2) The  way you knew if somebody died of plague was it was determined by a Searcher, which was their version of a Coroner. The Searcher's job was to go to where the dead were, take a look, and decide if it had been plague or something else.

As you might imagine, this was not exactly high on the list of people’s dream careers. Thus it tended to fall to those who couldn't get other work, typically older  women in poverty. Literally their only qualification was that they would  do the job.

There are those who say Searchers were corrupt, and would take bribes to lie about what they found. I'm not saying these accusations are seeped in misogyny because, well, I shouldn't HAVE to since we've all met the world before.

Consider the Searchers were sent  off to live away from other people, purposefully went into homes where  there was illness, had no medical training whatsoever, and had as much  incentive to tell the truth (or lie) about the presence of plague as  anybody else in town. So yeah. There were some issues with accuracy in  the numbers due to issues with reporting. Go fig.

Eventually it became clear plague was coming back. Some officials who had seen plague before tried to protect people by shutting down pubs and other places where people gathered. This wasn't great for pub owners, and some people felt that the shutdowns were too soon.

A protest about closing businesses to protect against COVID19.

In theory, people were supposed to stay put in London to help contain the spread of the disease. Not a full quarantine (more on that in a bit) but  still. You weren't supposed to leave London without special paperwork  and permission.

Those who had money, OTOH, fucked RIGHT off out of  London. They stayed with friends or in country estates. Others tried to  flee as well. This put a strain on the smaller country towns which  couldn't handle the influx. Some poorer refugees were sent back.

Among those who left were King Charles II (who went to Hampton Court  so I can't blame him, let's be honest), many government officials,  doctors (who tended to the rich), and clergy.

The church did more in those days than the government, both for charity and for things like helping out when people were dealing with the wrath of God in plague form. So them being self-serving and defying stay at home orders was considered a huge betrayal.

As for politicians, well it depended. First up you have what we would consider local politicians, such as the Lord Mayor of London. He stayed put and issued orders to stop the spread of plague.

Among the orders  were things like hiring the searchers, having doctors around, doing  NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DOGS AND CATS BECAUSE THIS IS MY THREAD AND I SAY  SO, DAMN IT, and rules about quarantine.

Quarantine was one of the  reasons families were reluctant to report a relative had plague. The  rule was that if even one family member had it, everyone in the house  had to be put into quarantine with them.

Of course back then quarantine  didn't involve 14 days of Netflix and chill like today. Instead, you  were locked in your house - literally with a padlock - with the sick  person for 40 days. (The word "quarantine" comes from 40). Red crosses  were painted on the doors to indicate the house had been hit by plague.

If you were lucky, a nurse might come by to check on you every so often  and you might get some food from the parish. Granted this wasn't @WCKitchen  level food and the nurses were as qualified as the searchers were, but OTOH consider that right now here in the States we expect people to be in quarantine without any food or additional medical assistance and 1665  was kind of ahead of the game.

As you might imagine, healthy people  locked in with sick people didn't stay healthy for long. This was one of  the ways that the Mayor's Orders actually didn't help contain the  spread.

Another was lack of ability to follow through on things, such as  the bit about doctors. Still another was that the plague was already IN  London by the time the orders were issued. Maybe if people hadn't been  in denial months earlier the measures could've stopped the spread but, well.

As for even higher up levels of government, you'll be happy to know  the House of Lords, which moved itself up to Oxford (aka Not London) was  on the case. In the summer of that year they finally got around to talking about the whole plague thing and came up with two proposals.

1) That no plague hospital be built near "persons of note and quality" and

2) That no member of the Lords have to be shut up in their house.

Plague hospitals were to help with the issue of quarantining healthy  people with sick. The idea was to build special hospitals solely for the  care of those with plague, thus containing the illness. Some were  built, but in the end they were mostly unused.

Nurses worked the hospitals and quarantined houses. Much like the  searchers, nurses during the Great Plague were considered dishonorable  and likely to be thieves. Even though, like the searchers, they did a  dangerous job no one wanted.

The death count climbed. In terms of records, it went from noting  specific payments for burials by name, to general labels like "the boy"  to bigger tallies. So many were dying every day it became hard to keep  track of.

Likewise there became a lack of room for the bodies. Single graves  became quickly consecrated plots of land became mass graves of bodies  piled on top of one another with no records of who was in there.

Even the ability to honor the dead went to the side. At the start  proper funerals were held. By the end it was barely possible to make  sure the ground they were placed in was holy. At first it was a rule to  ring a bell for those dead of plague to honor them and inform people of  the danger. Eventually they stopped the practice because the death count  kept the bells constantly ringing.

Winter eventually came. The spread slowed, and there were those who believed that it might be due to the change in weather.

Because of the slowed spread, people who had left London trickled back  in, assuming it would be safe. Turns out the plague didn't care, and there were infections again.

It's felt that in the end the Great Fire of London is part of what helped end the plague. Which... I'm really hoping to not come back to this thread and update it with a link that ties that bad boy to something modern. Yeesh. Some other details worth noting:

Once houses were cleared of plague they were marked with a white X

Anybody who says Ring Around the Rosie is about the black death is wrong.

Though they didn't know about germs, they did have the concept that  illness could be spread by breathing it in. They thought it was due to  miasma, or bad smells. But, considering the knowledge of the time, this  wasn't too weird a conclusion.

Fighting off the bad smells was thus considered a way to protect from plague. They carried around pomanders, herbs, and it was even strongly encouraged that people use tobacco. Fighting off the plague with smells is why our pal the plague doctor had the beak. There were herbs tucked inside.

Drawing of a plague doctor

Other  ways people protected themselves was by keeping their distance when  conducting business, and using vinegar to clean coins and correspondence  before touching them.

In the end about 69,000 people OFFICIALLY died of plague in 1665. Given the earlier mentioned issues, it's thought that the number is actually closer to 100,000, or a quarter of London's population at the time. Again I'm really hoping that I don't come back and update this thread with something that ties that number to modern times. [ETA: Sigh.]

But! Point  being that you can see that there's a cycle to these things, those who  don't learn history are doomed to yadda yadda. Or, as I said at the  start of this thread: