Daniel Defoe is the author most famous for Robinson Crusoe, an awful story not worth reading, but he also wrote an account of the great plague of London, which I recently read. This plague was apparently the Black Death, which is spread by fleas of a rat, so it attacks more effectively in summer and requires different prevention methods to influenza. Daniel Defoe wasn’t present in London when the plague happened (just as he never was stranded on an island), but instead wrote his account based on journals and other notes he obtained from his uncle. I suspect his account is not especially reliable, though I think he may have gained more raw material for his book than just that of his uncle, but it remains one of the few surviving accounts of the time, so it is worth considering, and in many respects this book shows us that the UK is making the same mistakes in dealing with Coronavirus that it made 350 years ago dealing with plague. Responding to pandemics is actually theoretically quite easy, though politically the necessary measures can be unpalatable; Defoe’s report shows us that the UK government has learnt nothing from 350 years of experience.

Ignoring the coming wave

One of the more common pieces of misinformation about Coronavirus is that the Chinese government hid information about the disease. This is far from true: in fact by mid-January the Chinese government was yelling from the rooftops about how dangerous this virus was, and trying to warn the whole world to be ready. On 23rd January they did something almost unprecedented in human history, closing a city of 12 million people to stop the spread of the virus. Nobody in Europe or the Americas bothered to listen to these widely-broadcast warnings, and in mid-February the pandemic spread to Italy, where it exploded. By mid-March the rest of Europe and the US finally realized – when white people were dying – that Chinese warnings were serious, but by then it was too late and the virus was wreaking havoc in the UK and much of Europe. The same happened in Defoe’s account of London. The plague was wreaking havoc in the Netherlands in the 1660s but action to stop it entering London was late and weak, even though everyone in Europe knew how bad it could be, and so in 1664 the first cases reached London. By summer it was widespread and killing thousands a week. The British government had been given plenty of warning but they let it in, and after it got in they did nothing to stop it.

Failure of Case Isolation

Daniel Defoe spends most of the book complaining about the policy of shuttering houses, in which houses with even one plague victim were locked shut and guarded by hired guards until everyone inside either died or recovered. He recounts many stories about the horrors of shuttered houses, and also the efforts residents made to escape, including burrowing through walls and attempting to kill their guards. This is the 17th century version of self-isolation, and just as with coronavirus, it did not work. Self-isolation in crowded living quarters – such as were common in London in 1665, and are common in London now – simply ensures that each case infects everyone in their house. It guarantees that the reproduction number of the disease is not the natural number of the virus, but the household size of the affected community. Instead case isolation, in which infected people are separated from the community, is much more effective to prevent the spread. For coronavirus case isolation was the standard response in Asia, which is why China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand were so much better able to manage this virus than the Europeans. Defoe notes this failure, as we see here:

In 350 years the British have learnt nothing about how to handle a serious epidemic, to the extent that they have done worse than the government of Charles II. While the city of London in 1665 organized inadequate numbers of “pest-houses”, in 2020 they couldn’t organize any, and the epidemic raged in “shuttered houses”, which Defoe deplored (though for the wrong reasons).

The impact of austerity and poor choices

Defoe also comments on the city of London’s priorities about spending money. He notes that people need to stay inside, and in particular that many people who work on day labour (yes, zero-hour contracts are not new in the UK) cannot stop working without some independent source of money, and talks about the need for the government to support people’s housing costs. But he notes that the government was much less interested in supporting the basic needs of poor people during the epidemic, than they were in vanity projects after:

Clearly, priorities have not changed much in the 350 years since the plague. If only there were another political party with a coherent project to change the spending priorities of the British government, who could have been elected to government just before the epidemic hit…

The frenzy of reopening

We are now seeing Europe and the English speaking world reopen, with tragic consequences in the USA and, no doubt, similar disasters impending for the UK. In Victoria, Australia, there is a new wave of cases brewing after reopening, and here in otherwise-sensible Japan the government ended lockdown a week or two early and is seeing a resurgence of cases it cannot stop. Experience around the world shows that the only way to be safe from this disease is to strangle it until it is dead – as New Zealand and China did – and then to be hyper-vigilant about importing new cases. Any attempt to live with it will lead only to catastrophe. But in their eagerness to return to normal life the people of Europe and the USA have failed to understand this and are now beginning to pay the price. Defoe noted this strange zeal for life in the last stages of the plague in London:

We can only sustain so much isolation and restrictions and death before we go crazy, a fact that has not changed since the 17th century. It is incumbent on us, then, to make sure that those lockdowns and restrictions are worth it. Many countries have failed to do that, either by making the lockdowns ineffective (as appears to have been the case in the UK and many US states) or by opening just a little early (as happened in Australia and Japan). Defoe understood this; it appears that 350 years later the British government does not.

History repeating as tragedy

We all know the quote, and it appears that the UK government has failed to learn anything from 350 years of experience of epidemics. Defoe’s book isn’t very good and it has a lot of ascientific nonsense as Defoe tries to understand the plague in terms of divine vengeance or weird theories of miasma, but even with that poor fundamental science background the people of Britain in 1665 understood that infectious diseases spread and certain things need to be done. They made mistakes in dealing with the plague, mistakes that are to be expected given their limited scientific knowledge. But Defoe’s book also shows that the secrets of controlling infectious diseases aren’t rocket science and have been known to us for a very long time. To fail to apply those well-known and very basic principles in 2020, with all our wealth and resources, is just a ridiculous failure of civilization. There is no excuse for letting this virus overwhelm us, as it is now doing in the USA and Brazil and will soon do again in the UK and Europe. We know what needs to be done and have the capacity to do it; failure to do so is simply a tragedy, with no excuse or justification. And Defoe’s book shows that some countries are going to repeat the mistakes of hundreds of years ago, as if the governments of those countries have learnt nothing in all that time. It’s a disaster, that even the man who wrote a book as terrible as Robinson Crusoe could have predicted.