Diary of the plague year: behaviors reminiscent of 18th century London


A world in quarantine, patrolmen warning of the dangers of leaving home, masked in a romper accompanying foreigners to the airport. Humanity is living a kind of science fiction movie. However, the only danger it’s not the disease, but what comes with it.

Of all the recent pandemics, perhaps the most stigmatizing has been AIDS. The ignorance of the routes of contagion in a first stage led to the confinement of members of the groups considered “at risk” and to the risk that it was some divine punishment” to sexual practices considered dangerous and immoral.

The cholera, the bird flu, the swine flu, the Anthrax and the fears and paranoia that came with them cannot be forgotten either. But the advance of coronavirus worldwide it caused the mutation of social habits that some scholars predict will be long-lasting and not short-term.

Chronicle of an epidemic

Daniel Defoe, an eighteenth-century London journalist and writer, is the author of the famous Robinson crusoe, and from the picaresque novel Moll Flanders. his Plague Year Diary provides a description of how a society behaves in times of disease. Defoe did not live through the great epidemic of 1665 that devastated with a fifth of the city’s population, because he was born later, but he describes it as if he had been there, in a chronicle style. His gift of observation of human nature, reflected in the novel of the castaway and his loyal companion Friday is revealed in the Diary.

English highlights what gestures of “save yourself who can” appear during the plague, what prejudice emerge more virulently or conversely, what generous acts proliferate, what authoritative temptations arise and who they take advantage from the anguish of the helpless. Here are some passages.

Concealing symptoms is not a new behavior:

“All those who could hide their discomforts did so, to prevent the neighbors from fleeing their presence and refusing to talk to them, and also to prevent the authorities from closing their houses; a threat that, although not yet carried out, hung over the population. , extremely scared. “

The desperation to leave the city, without realizing that in this way the disease and death were carried to other areas, already existed. Zones were sealed off and outsiders were not admitted to the accommodation.

The Government was about to give the order to install barriers on the route to prevent people from traveling.

“For a few weeks, people rushed in such a way that it was impossible to get to the Lord Mayor’s gate without overcoming extraordinary difficulties. The crowd crowded to get passes and health certificates as if they were traveling abroad; allowed anyone to pass through cities through roads, nor stay in any inn… it was whispered that the Government was about to issue the order to install barriers and fences on the route to prevent people from traveling, and that the cities located on the route would not tolerate the passage of Londoners for fear that they would carry the infection with them “

Prudence in communication reached censorship to avoid panic and arrest those responsible for publications. First they were advised, and then they were sanctioned, although the thing did not happen to greater.

“Some attempts were made to suppress printing books that terrorize the people, and to scare their diffusers, some of which were learned. But these attempts were not carried out until the last instance because, according to what I was informed, the Government was reluctant to exasperate the people, who were already quite beside themselves. “

Cheap medicines were recommended and free copies were given everyone who wanted them.

The theaters were closed because they wanted to avoid broadcasting but also because the mood of the people was gloomy, as were the casinos.

“The plague on stage was banned from all the works and hors d’oeuvres that, in the style of the French court, had begun to spread among us; they were gambling dens closed and suppressed, dance halls and music houses that were multiplying and began to corrupt customs; and the clowns, jesters, puppets, volatines, and the like numbers that had bewitched the ordinary public closed their shops, where there was no longer any movement, because other ideas stirred minds, and a kind of sadness and horror at those ideas installed even on the faces of ordinary people.

There was scammers They took advantage of the desperation and credulity of the people and the counterpart was the provision of free medicines.

“But as far as public health is concerned, it should be noted here that, seeing the stupidity of the populace running towards the madness behind healers, charlatans, witches and fortune tellersThe Lord Mayor, a very sober and religious gentleman, appointed doctors and surgeons to relieve the poor – I mean the sick poor – and especially ordered the College of Physicians to issue instructions on remedies cheap for all instances of the disease. The truth is that this was one of the most charitable and judicious things that could be done at that time, since it contributed to the fact that people did not gather in front of the doors of the prescription dispensers, and that they did not take potions blindly and without consideration. who gave purge and death instead of life. To publicize these directives, the full College was consulted; they were specially calculated for the use of the poor, they were recommended cheap medicines and free copies were given everyone who wanted them. ”

As in Argentina today, a strict quarantine was carried out, but it was applied only to the sick and their families.

“As soon as any man found by this examiner, surgeon, or investigator becomes ill with the plague, that same night he will be isolated in the same house; and in the event that he is so isolated and then does not die, the house in which he got sick will be closed for a month, after the use of adequate preventives taken by the rest of its members. “