On 3 June 2020 I left my home for the first time since mid-March. I live in the London borough of Southwark, just south of the river Thames, and we had distinguished ourselves early on as having one of the highest rates of Covid infection in the capital. So – I was very strict about lockdown and quarantine.
The only reason I left my home today was that back in February, I’d started root canal surgery and it was left with a gaping hole in my molar. That got infected and so I had to dash to the dentist and get the surgery finished off.
So what to say about Lockdown London on 3 June. Well, despite all the reports that quarantine has all but collapsed, I found a city that was eerily deserted still. Yes, there are more cars and construction workers – but no office staff.
I didn’t see a single person in a suit in the middle of town. Even though I walked down Fleet Street and Chancery Lane – centre of the legal community. Not a single arrogant, over-paid lawyer in sight! 🙂
London is not a stranger to plague and lockdown as I’ve mentioned on the blog. In 1665, we had a Great Plague which involved King Charles II and his court fleeing the city for Oxford. Much to the annoyance of Londoners. They took the full force of the disease while their social betters were miles away.
Then there was the Black Death where the bodies piled up in huge pits – stricken with the bubonic plague. Incidentally, these plague pits are dug up every so often and others lie under your feet in the most unexpected places. Like a supermarket in Whitechapel I won’t mention, for example.
This virus hasn’t been on the scale of 1665 or the Black Death. Nor the many cholera and typhus outbreaks that hit the city over the centuries. And I suppose our response has been more sophisticated – though at present, most Londoners I know are not hugely enamoured of the politicians.
Anyway, I didn’t feel at enormous risk today with my visor. But the lockdown has forced many business sectors in London to rethink their models. Do we need so many offices? Do we need all these hotels? How will transport work with social distancing?
And it’s going to change the way we interact. A year ago, pre-lockdown London was booming. Previously derelict areas of the city were becoming terribly chic and crowded with hip young things. And now?
Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?
Here’s the bad news first.
Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history
Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.
Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.
Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.
But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.
Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact
A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.
Plague after plague in the Roman Empire
History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.
The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.
In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.
Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history
Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.
I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.
The tragedy of HIV/AIDS
The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.
But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.
The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!
I was in Berlin in February 2020 just before the Coronavirus struck and led to the city going on lockdown. It seems incredible that at the time of writing this, I was in Berlin three weeks ago and walked around the incredible Pergamon Museum – whose doors are now closed.
But – I don’t want you to be denied the amazing sights of the Pergamon Museum just because of this wretched virus. So luckily, I had my iPhone and captured the incredible Roman gateway that was shipped a hundred years ago from what is now Turkey to Germany. The Gate of Miletus was then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in a vast room.
There have been moments in history when the whole of society seemed to be seized by a communal panic. Since mid-March 2020 this year, almost our entire news output from TV, newspapers and online has been Coronavirus related. We have been in a communal panic of epic proportions.
That’s not to say Coronavirus is fake as some have claimed. But the virus has shaken us all severely. It’s altered every aspect of our daily lives. As widespread panic goes – this is probably the most fundamental episode of collective anxiety I’ve ever seen.
In my lifetime – and I was born in 1963 – there have been what I can only describe as unsettling moments – where life couldn’t carry on as normal. The current Coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those moments.
The streets of my home city, London, are noticeably emptier than usual. The tube train and buses have empty seats. In fact yesterday I found myself in an empty train carriage that would normally be full on a Saturday.
Which made me think about when had I experienced similar episodes of panic in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?
PANIC IN HISTORY: The aftermath of 9/11
Well, for a panic on the scale of the Coronavirus, I’d have to go back to the aftermath of 9/11 back in 2001. In the days that followed the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York, people in London were worried that similar terrorist outrages could happen on our streets.
There were fears of so-called “dirty bombs” – a radiological dispersal device (even held in a suitcase) – being released in public places. On TV, we had dramatised scenarios where a terrorist would knowingly infect people with a deadly virus by brushing again them in a lift.
Reports circulated of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union being robbed of lethal chemicals and we wondered if London could be made uninhabitable for a century or more.
PANIC IN HISTORY: Chernobyl
Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown. Radioactive material was scattered all over the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I was living in Liverpool at the time and recall being locked out of my flat and caught in a downpour.
A friend “joked” that as sheep in nearby north Wales had been shown to have higher than usual levels of radiation, I had probably absorbed some radiation too!
I must admit that for us in Britain, the health panic around Chernobyl was nothing compared to the fear in places closer to the nuclear site like Ukraine and the Balkans. And it certainly didn’t match the huge impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.
If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – two big themes are disease and terrorism. These moments have sometimes created a sense of panic similar to what we’re feeling today about the Coronavirus.
On the disease side of things, there was the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE for short) – which led us to shun British beef in favour of Argentinian or not eat beef at all.
PANIC IN HISTORY: HIV/AIDS
There was the horror and anguish of the HIV/AIDS virus and the loss of people to that terrible disease, which first emerged very publicly in the early 1980s.
It struck terror into the gay community but affected other groups as well. What shocks us now is the lack of sympathy in the tabloid press back then that dubbed the virus – the “gay plague”.
I guess one difference between the panic around Coronavirus today and the fear of AIDS back then is that most people in the 1980s thought they were completely immune to AIDS. They assumed it was a virus only affected LGBT people and certain parts of the world.
On the terrorism side, there have been the ISIS bombings in recent years in London, Paris and Brussels. I was in Paris shortly after the 2015 atrocities and saw heavily armed troops patrolling outside Notre Dame.
While outside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorist shot up the audience at a rock gig, thousands of young people lit candles and wept.
Back in my childhood – in the 1970s – the terrorist threat came from the Irish Republican Army who in the middle of that decade carried out two notorious and bloody bombings in Guildford and Birmingham.
That was a spill over of the conflict raging in Northern Ireland between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There were periods when more vigilance was required and the public was noticeably more tense and anxious.
Outside of terrorism and disease – the only other thing that comes to mind is the threat of superpower conflict. Forty years ago, we worried about the Soviet Union and the United States blowing each other up.
Now – in a more multi-polar world – that’s not such a looming threat. The political danger instead comes from multiple sources and is far less predictable.
In short – these periods of heightened risk happen every so often in human history. Plague, war, famine….we’ve been here before. It’s when we realise that despite our modernity and technology – we are still very vulnerable to things beyond our control.
I’ve watched some terrible historical dramas on TV of late – awful scripting, casting and plotting. So, discovering the Spanish TV six part drama La Peste(The Plague) has given me hope for the genre!
La Peste transports you back in time!
Set in 16th century Spain, the action takes place in the city of Seville. Though now resolutely Catholic, the city still reveals traces of its previous Moorish, Muslim rulers. Casting a shadow over the lives of its inhabitants is the Inquisition. Otherwise known as the Holy Office, this arm of the Catholic church sets out to identify Protestants and to eliminate them.
Our hero, Mateo, has fallen foul of the heretic hunters but is given a chance to save his life if he can find out who is behind a series of grisly killings in Seville. He is accompanied in his investigations by the illegitimate son of a dead friend he swore to protect. But this street urchin, Valerio, has grown up in the truly ghastly slums of Seville and is a ruthless, emotionally stunted individual.
Spain at the time it was colonising the world
What I loved about La Peste was the way it conveyed the filth and degradation of Seville at a time when the Spanish empire encompassed much of Latin America, Europe and even had a foothold in Asia – the Philippines. The wealth of empire trickled upwards leaving most Spaniards living in bestial conditions.
La Peste uses CGI intelligently and effectively. We see some familiar landmarks that still exist today in Seville but set among shanty towns, shabby markets and tiny dwellings. The last episode ends with an auto-da-fe – a public burning of heretics. I’ll admit it was one of the most unpleasant scenes I’ve seen on TV for a long time but, very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the series.
I recommend! The YouTube video below shows the making of the last episode of La Peste – spoiler alert and some of you may find the scenes of the Inquisition punishing heretics upsetting.
London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.
The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:
Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those Crosses
England’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker
The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.
What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.
Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.
The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.
This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!
Most Londoners are oblivious to the number of dead people under their feet – especially those buried in their thousands in plague pits. And those London plague pit locations are in some very unlikely places.
Here’s a few London plague pits that might make you shudder next time you stroll over them:
Vincent Square – enjoy your picnic in Westminster because you’re sitting on top of a heap of skeletons. The pits extend under nearby government buildings.
Green Park – when the Victoria Line was being built for the London tube in the 1960s, construction workers bumped into a lot of 17th century bones. Pits from the Great Plague of London!
Golden Square – I love the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square but had no idea that during the 1665 plague, the “Searchers” were bringing cart loads of corpses and dumping them here. This must have been one of the most ghoulish of the London plague pits.
Marshall Street/Beak Street – I used to work round here and used the swimming pool at the Marshall Street leisure centre. Yep, there are bodies under that pool! There were several pest houses in the area surrounded by a brick wall to which plague victims were sent. When they died, they were put in plague pits around the modern junction of Marshall Street and Beak Street. Not tens of bodies…not hundreds…thousands!
Sainsbury’s Whitechapel – Next time you’re browsing the tinned food or veg, spare a thought for those under the supermarket floor whose shopping days are long gone.
Charterhouse Square – During building work for Crossrail in 2013, a plague pit dating back to the Black Death in 1348 was discovered. Historians believe that up to 50,000 medieval Londoners might have been interred in the area. This makes it top of the London plague pits!