Past as Prologue, or Observations During a Plague Year

A note on Daniel Defoe and the Great Plague of 1665-66.

You may recognize Daniel Defoe as the author of Robinson Crusoe. He wrote a less famous work with the title Journal of a Plague Year, which recounts the Great Plague of London of 1665-66.  As Journal of a Plague Year was published in 1722, some fifty-five years after the events it describes, the work has come in for some criticism as to its historical veracity; Defoe would have been a small child at the time of the events that he describes. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that he would have invented the response of Londoners.  He certainly would have learned of events from those who had survived that visitation of the plague. What is more, Defoe’s account is largely confirmed by the diary of Samuel Pepys, a first-hand witness of the events of 1665-66.

How did Defoe describe the behavior of Londoners during the outbreak? Those with the means to do so fled to the countryside, including the king himself, along with his court. Those who remained—typically poor– were placed under quarantine if a member of the household found him/herself under suspicion of infection. The remaining rump of the government assigned supervision of quarantined houses to anyone willing to perform the task, and these people often looked the other way as inmates under their supervision broke quarantine to visit ale-houses or conduct personal business, thereby assisting the spread of the plague. The medical and ecclesiastical infrastructure in place were ill-equipped to handle the deluge of the infected and the corpses, and the dead in their great numbers were deposited in mass graves.  The economy, meanwhile, suffered from the diminution of local trade and the British crown’s ban on imports from the continent.  

Let’s investigate possible parallels with the handling of the 2020 crisis. Ineffective authorities?  Check. The medical infrastructure overwhelmed?  Check. Corpses in the streets? Roger. The poor succumbing in disproportionate numbers? Church dat. People defying sensible protocols put in place to prevent further spread of the disease? You bet.

Welcome to the eighteenth century.

Oh, and the London population recovered, and resumed its Malthusian trajectory. Now, who or what is Malthus?

A note on Thomas Malthus.

Wise minds look to the past as a guide to the present.  In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, those seeking historic parallels frequently point to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918-1920 as a guide.  The Spanish flu did claim millions of lives, after all. But perhaps a glance into the deeper past might throw further light on the situation in 2020. Perhaps we did this to ourselves and are little better equipped to deal with a plague than were our seventeenth-century British forbears.

To illustrate my point, I turn your attention to Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century English clergyman and economist. Malthus argued that while food supply increases arithmetically over time, population increases exponentially. Thus, any increase in food supply will be far outstripped by a growth in population that this increase in calories cannot sustain.  Nature periodically addresses this overpopulation through plagues, famines, and warfare (starving peoples will attack their neighbors in their quest for food). Not surprisingly, it is the poor and undernourished whose number diminishes most from such demographic crises. The reduced post-disaster population will, after a time, resume its exponential growth that exceeds the food supply necessary to support it. Until the next demographic adjustment, that is.

Now, the world population at the time of Malthus’s essay in 1798 was about one billion. By 2020, this figure had swelled to 7.8 billion, an average increase of 780%, or 3.5 percent per year. However, this average increase is itself growing, shall we say, exponentially. To wit, the world population has grown to its current number from 6.1 billion in the year 2000, a 28 percent increase in a single generation.[1] Some estimates suggest that the world population will peak at 10.9 billion around the year 2100.[2]  But is that number sustainable?[3]  Let us not lose sight of the fact that global warming may well threaten the sustainability of the global food supply.

I am no demographer, but I wonder if the world is spitting us out. Are we a billion or two too many? Does this visitation of coronavirus indicate the onset of a new Malthusian crisis? Will further visitations occur, as was the case with earlier plagues, this time having morphed beyond whatever remedy we can come up with?

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ Of course, advances in medicine and industrialized agriculture have facilitated much of this growth; we do not inhabit the same world as Malthus.

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/worlds-population-is-projected-to-nearly-stop-growing-by-the-end-of-the-century/ More on the reliability of statistics in a later post.

[3] https://www.globalhungerindex.org/results.html#:~:text=The%20World&text=The%202019%20Global%20Hunger,of%2020.0%20(Figure%202.1). The creators of this website hold a somewhat optimistic view of trends in global malnutrition on the basis of the proportion of the world population that is undernourished.  But the absolute number surely have increased?

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