I’ve been revisiting Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) to see whether it can give us any insights into the Ebola epidemic that has broken out in West Africa and is now finding its way into Europe and the United. Here are a few preliminary observations and I’ll report back as I get deeper into the novel.
I’ll note first that Journal is indeed a novel, even though it reads like a journal. Defoe, who is regarded as the father of modern journalism, gives us a sense that he is right there witnessing the plague, even though he was only five in 1665, the time of the great London outbreak. But he did his homework before writing the work, which he frames as a memoir written by his uncle Henry Foe. The anecdotal way in which the novel is written is riveting.
Journal begins with a detail that is certainly not the case now, given the rapidity of modern social media. But Defoe foresees a time when the news will be more rapidly spread:
We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.
There are other similarities between now and then, however. For instance, as in several of the African locales, there were initial attempts to cover up the outbreak or to deny its severity:
But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true…
The recounting of small details, how the spread begins, sounds a lot like, say, the New Yorker’s account of how the Ebola epidemic started in a small village in Guinea. The Defoe passage continues,
…till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane. The family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible, but as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood, the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inquire about it, in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague.
One of Defoe’s most striking observations is how extreme reactionary measures almost always backfire. Narrator Henry Foe sees this happening when the fearful populace calls for forced quarantines of sick families:
This is one of the reasons why I believed then, and do believe still, that the shutting up houses thus by force, and restraining, or rather imprisoning, people in their own houses, as I said above, was of little or no service in the whole. Nay, I am of opinion it was rather hurtful, having forced those desperate people to wander abroad with the plague upon them, who would otherwise have died quietly in their beds.
And further on:
[I]f anybody was taken sick in a family, before the master of the family let the examiners or any other officer know of it, he immediately would send all the rest of his family, whether children or servants, as it fell out to be, to such other house which he had so in charge, and then giving notice of the sick person to the examiner, have a nurse or nurses appointed, and have another person to be shut up in the house with them (which many for money would do), so to take charge of the house in case the person should die.
This was, in many cases, the saving a whole family, who, if they had been shut up with the sick person, would inevitably have perished. But, on the other hand, this was another of the inconveniences of shutting up houses; for the apprehensions and terror of being shut up made many run away with the rest of the family, who, though it was not publicly known, and they were not quite sick, had yet the distemper upon them; and who, by having an uninterrupted liberty to go about, but being obliged still to conceal their circumstances, or perhaps not knowing it themselves, gave the distemper to others, and spread the infection in a dreadful manner…
Although our medical knowledge is far superior to that of Defoe’s time, it is striking that we still seem to be more likely to panic and call for counterproductive solutions than to apply our knowledge in systematic and helpful ways. We know that the Ebola virus is spread through contact with secretions (this is why health workers are at such risk) and have the resources to intervene effectively, even if we don’t yet have a cure. But as Defoe’s novel makes clear, the rising hysteria is such that wise public policy procedures do not always prevail.
I’ll report back as I continue on with the novel and as developments continue to unfold.