The Great Plague

The public reaction to the Great Plague of 1665-1666 has some important lessons for us today.

The Great Plague book cover
Recently I’ve been reading an interesting book about the Great Plague, the plague which terrorized London (and much of England) in the period 1665-1666.

Widely believed to be bubonic plague spread by fleas from the black rat, rattus rattus[1], it killed most of the people it infected, was highly contagious, and wiped out a large proportion of the population.

Medicine has changed a lot since then.

But people haven’t.

  • Fear of contagion lead people to one of four actions. They would either (a) take no precautions whatsoever and live riotously, believing death inevitable, or (b) live in total seclusion, or (c) not become a total recluse, but take extreme care in public places, or (d) flee.
  • There were tremendous incentives for local authorities to under-report the plague, because of the effect that being associated with the plague would have on trade.
  • Political will to take preventative measures diminished between plague outbreaks. Pest houses — built to quarantine actual and suspected victims — were mainly built when the threat was evident. It was difficult to raise money at other times.
  • Quarantine — either legally or self imposed — often failed because the quarantined people lacked the means to provide for themselves if confined to their homes. Quarantining of goods and travelers was effective, however.
  • Taxation was a problem. Special taxes were raised to help bury the dead and pay to look after the sick, but because the people being taxed had fled the affected area, the taxes were impossible to collect.
  • Gatherings in public places were recognized as a risk and banned.
  • Both goods and people from suspected plague areas were rejected, resulting in a major disruption in trade.

Will people react differently in the next pandemic? I doubt it.

The Great Plague is a dry book but an interesting read.

[1] The black rat may have gotten a bad rap. There weren’t any extra deaths reported in the rat population during this period, so the theory that rat fleas carrying the plague moved to humans when their rat host died is not supported by the evidence. There’s really a lot about the plague outbreak we don’t know: there’s even doubt about whether it was bubonic plague or viral hemorrhagic fever.

23 November 2008

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