What Can Daniel Defoe’s “Plague Year” Teach Us About Coronavirus? BY ELIOTT GROVER / Inside Hook, MARCH 17, 2020
A novel written in 1722 offers a surprisingly relevant blueprint to navigating a 2020 pandemic
The panic began the moment the earliest cases were confirmed. Those with means hurriedly packed their belongings and fled the city. Those who stayed had a range of reactions: many laid siege to the markets, stocking up on provisions before barricading themselves and their families in their homes; some congregated in churches while others consulted astronomers and fortune-tellers; many more, dismissive of the invisible disease or the visible fear it stoked in the masses, continued their lives unabated. These individuals were the first to die.
The city in question is not Wuhan or Milan or Manhattan. It is London and the year is 1665. Before the end of 1666, the Bubonic Plague will kill roughly one-quarter of the city’s population. As devastating as this figure is, it could have been much worse.
While other pestilential narratives dwell on the chaos that accompanies pandemics, Defoe’s book documents the rigid order that emerges in the plague city. Michel Foucault, the 20th-century philosopher whose ideas have greatly influenced modern conceptions of power, highlighted these divergent views in his seminal 1975 book Discipline and Punish.
“A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect,” Foucault writes. “But there was also a political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life.” What Foucault is suggesting, and what Defoe’s account supports, is that this political dream becomes a reality in the societies that combat pandemics most effectively.