Gavin Mortimer Gavin Mortimer

What Pepys’s plague diaries can teach us about coronavirus

I’ve been writing a diary for 26 years and 2020 is shaping up to be a vintage one. I thought 2019 would be hard to beat, what with Brexit, Greta and Labour’s implosion, but this year I’ve been feeling like Samuel Pepys as the 21st century answer to the bubonic plague sweeps the world.

The virus first came to my attention on January 24, when I mentioned in passing ‘the spread in China of something called “coronavirus”.’ But it wasn’t until February 9 that I informed my diary that the arrival in Britain of Storm Clara has ‘given the media something else to panic about other than coronavirus. Seven people now infected in the UK and 800 deaths in China.’

At 32, Pepys was younger than me when the plague ravaged London in 1665, which may have been a factor in saving him from becoming one of the estimated 100,000 fatalities (around 20 per cent of London’s population) of the disease, which was transmitted by fleas that lived on rats. Once infected, the chances of surviving the plague were terrifyingly slim; most people, as Daniel Defoe recorded ‘were immediately overwhelmed with it, and it came to violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pains in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains.’

Of more significance, however, was that Pepys was not poor and didn’t live in the squalor that passed for housing where the plague flourished. In terms of lethality coronavirus bears no comparison with the more deadly bubonic plague, but re-reading Pepys’ diary it is fascinating to see the parallels between 1665 and 2020. The first handful of recorded Plague deaths in London were in March but of more interest to Pepys that spring was England’s fight with her European neighbours (specifically, in this instance, the Dutch) for control of the seas and trade routes.

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Gavin Mortimer
Written by
Gavin Mortimer

Gavin Mortimer is a British author who lives in Burgundy after many years in Paris. He writes about French politics, terrorism and sport.

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