Terry Prone: Secrecy, cover-ups and risky behaviour — the hallmarks of any pandemic

7th Jun 2021
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner

Michael Hart was a writer and a university lecturer with a techie pal in the university who gave him sneaky access to the wide area network the university had created. This was back when we talked about LANs and WANs to each other. They were what came before the internet.

Hart, appreciating the value of his pal’s gift, was ready when the internet came along. He wanted to give something in return for the computer time he had been given, and thought the best way to do it would be to make available for free to anybody who wanted to read them, copies of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.

So he inputted them. He sat down at his computer, book by his side, and hit the keyboard. By the mid-80s, all by himself, he had painstakingly typed in more than three hundred books.

Then he roped in others — volunteers as much in love with print as he was — in the process starting Project Gutenburg, named after the inventor of printing.

It now houses 60,000 out-of-print books anybody can download, any time, to read. No charge. Easy, speedy, and mind-boggling in its possibilities.

Just one of the possibilities offered by Project Gutenberg is reading the accounts of earlier pandemics, written by those who either suffered through them, like Samuel Pepys, the man who created the British navy, or researched them, like novelist Daniel Defoe, who was about five or six when the bubonic plague flamed up in London in 1665.

To read these accounts so many centuries later is to be struck by similarities.

Defoe wrote the plague book in his sixties, a couple of years after Robinson Crusoe, publishing it in 1722.

Although he wasn’t an historian, he seems to have researched his subject deeply, identifying the first sufferers, who in modern terms would be “patients zero” as two Frenchmen and specifying the location of their deaths within the city and the month: December.

Just as happened in the coronavirus pandemic, concealment immediately kicked in: “The family they were in, endeavored to conceal it as much as possible; but as it had gotten some Vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood” the authorities got wind of it and “in order to be certain of the truth, two Physicians and a Surgeon were order’d to go to the House and make Inspection”.

This, they duly did and found the unmistakeable and gruesome signs on the bodies that the two had died of plague.

The discourse of the neighbourhood had been on the button; or the buboe, to make a link with one of the more horrible manifestations of the disease.

Another person in the same house died a few days later, but then followed a brief lull, which allowed everybody to believe the infection had died off.

Wishful thinking. It hadn’t.

Within weeks, excess burials were being noted, and people started to avoid the areas where the dead people had lived, helped in this resolution by the weekly publication of the Bill of Mortality, which facilitated knowing which places were showing up as infected, “too [sic] the end such places may be shunned and avoided”.

Checking the death notices has always been something of a national sport in this country, but the popularity, in 18th-century London, of the Bill of Mortality, suggests we’re not alone.

The Bill of Mortality was a weekly publication bought by roughly 5,000 every week. That, given the relative population density, would exceed the current listenership to the average podcast.

They majored on the cause of death, frequently blaming advanced years, with “aged” appearing in the relevant column without specifying what constituted “aged”.

The other causes listed spoke to the times, with TB (or galloping consumption) turning up more than almost anything else, although stroke, described as “apoplexy” figured, as did industrial accidents.

The quiet tragedy of child mortality runs through the Bill of Mortality with more than three out of 10 infants dying before they reached their sixth birthday.

Defoe, researching accounts from half a century earlier, wrote about the chain of infection.

“It was not the sick people only from whom the plague was immediately received by others that were sound, but the well,” he stated.

“By the well I mean those who had received the contagion, and had it really upon them and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances.

“These breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them.”

Long before the very concept of bacteria or viruses had crossed the human mind. Defoe was able to describe the danger posed by the asymptomatic infected person.

Pepys was more concerned about the symptomatic infected person, specifically one of his servants when the latter developed a headache.

Pepys took action straight away, ordering the other servants to get the headache sufferer out of the house immediately.

He doesn’t go into detail about where the unfortunate was put, but he clearly perceived the threat to his family posed by someone who might be carrying plague.

In that particular case, the headache didn’t develop and the servant returned to the Pepys’ home, no doubt warmed by working for a clever man who fully understood that if the family took care of the servant, and if he was infected with the plague and died of it, then notification of the death and of its cause to the proper authorities had to happen.

In consequence, the entire family would be forced to lock down and, to make checking on their compliance easy, stick up a notice on the outside of the house to indicate that plague was visiting.

Just as Ireland got hooked on the Six One news when it was where the bell tolled loudest and the statistics were freshest, so Pepys got hooked, during his plague, on the Bill of Mortality.

They provided him with specific data to worry about. As a planner employed by the state to develop sizeable projects, Samuel was necessarily a data-and-statistics man, and so was able to determine the arc of the capital city’s plague experience, even, as the plague ran its course, concluding that it was dwindling away to nothing.

Pepys was cheered up by the improving figures — cheered up enough to engage in what Nphet might describe as “anticipatory behaviour”.

Pepys was always up for a bit of extra-marital sex, and not that pushed about where he got it, as he frequently confided (in self-protective code) to his diary.

So as soon as the statistics turned promising, Pepys went out into the newly crowded streets to the home of his mistress, where he got lucky — in two ways: He had a grand time; and neither infected the other with plague.

Things change. But many stay the same.