Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, about London’s “Great Plague” of 1665, makes us resign to the fact that we learn nothing from history.
Can we change the subject please? Can we talk about something else? About Brexit? Or the presidential elections in the United States, or Putin, or Kim Jong Un, or the Bolivarian revolution? Or – a heated debate in England until recently – whether prisoners born with male biological characteristics who suddenly identify themselves as women should continue to be admitted to female prisons despite the fact that some of the aforementioned have already been accused of sexual violence against their imprisoned neighbours?
All very interesting during that most distant time, BC, Before Coronavirus. Today, that no longer matters. Not at all. We can’t change the subject. Because now we are all imprisoned, because all of us who live in Spain and half of Europe have been deprived of our freedom, and our notion of what is important has become narrower, and we can no longer afford to be outraged by issues that are, too often, comically unnecessary.
Nor can we change the subject out of respect for those who have died from the damned virus, their families, those fighting for their lives, the health workers, the police, those who grow, prepare, distribute or sell food, and even journalists who work more miracles than usual to get the news out, not just every day, but almost every minute of the day.
For me and for the vast majority like me, who are still healthy for now and are locked up at home under a kind of house arrest, every day is the same. What is today Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday? What difference does it make? We still have many Groundhog Days ahead.
It’s not all bad news. Traffic accident fatalities will decrease. Likewise, whatever it is that contaminates our air. Let’s also celebrate the inventors of the internet. I’m not an addict because I can’t stand the social networks. (Who knows if the Twittervirus will turn out to be more harmful to humanity than the Coronavirus in the long term?) But thanks to WhatsApp, Skype and such, we have been able to maintain virtual contact with a sufficient feeling of closeness so as not to miss our dear friends from whom we are physically separated.
I am also grateful for books, since I can’t spend all day talking, sending and receiving messages, or exchanging jokes on my cell phone. To liven up my indefinite sentence I have opted for murder mysteries (Inspector Maigret is not to be missed) and chronicles about plagues. Last week I read Camus The Plague. This week I read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, an expert in involuntary isolation who also wrote Robinson Crusoe.
Defoe’s Journal of London’s “Great Plague” of 1665 is comforting, but it also fuels resignation at the exasperating truth that we learn nothing from history. It is comforting because that plague was infinitely more cruel than the one under which we are suffering now. We have to resign ourselves because human behaviour in the face of today’s crisis is identical to that of 355 years ago.
People fighting in the markets for provisions, refusing to keep their distance, fleeing from the capital cities to spread the disease in the countryside, conspiracy theories about the origin of the plague, fairy tales about how to avoid contagion, repudiation of authorities trying to keep order, demagogues inviting panic and petty disputes between politicians.
Daily life, except for the atrocious hygiene differences, was also much the same: the empty streets, the sick forced to stay at home, scientific discrepancies on when people start or finish being contagious. Defoe’s book is first of all a litany of misfortunes, but when the opportunity arises it also celebrates the generosity and “raw courage” of many people, and the sometimes suicidal commitment of “doctors, surgeons and priests.”
Defoe’s book is more journalism than literature, and it is striking for the frequency with which it lists the death statistics. Like us today, the author is waiting for the day when they begin to fall, always looking for reasons to convince himself that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It reminds me of an episode in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog. The main character is going bald and studying an ad that promises hair recovery with “the exaggerated scepticism of a man whose craving to believe was deep, desperate.”
Something like that was how I responded to the news this week that in the Chinese province of Hubei, where it all started, not a single case of contagion was reported; that in Japan they have used a medicine against the flu that according to the Chinese authorities stops the coronavirus; that the Germans are winning the global race to find the vaccine that will save us all.
Germany gives us another reason to allow ourselves a wisp of hope. The death rate from Coronavirus is well below that for the rest of Europe. The last figures I saw said that there have been 14,290 cases of contagion but only 43 deaths. I say “only” because at the same time on Friday in Italy there were 41,035 infected and 3,405 deaths; in Spain 18,077 and 833 deaths. The explanation seems to be that the Germans have managed to do far more medical tests for the virus than their neighbours.
In any case, I like the idea that the Germans are the ones to find a solution. They owed a debt to the world after the Second World War. They are in debt, but they know it, and, more than the heirs of Stalin and Franco, they have done everything possible to recognize and atone for their historical sins. They deserve some brownie points for being able to say that they took us out of this catastrophe. OK. I agree, they may not know how to live like Latinos, but they know how to organize things, and they know how to solve problems. Today their way is, if possible, the example to follow.
John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 22 March 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell, https://www.clarin.com/opinion/dias-marmota_0_kyng_Krx3.html