Link to my review on Goodreads (same text as below).
The book, free on Gutenberg.org.
was pretty entertaining reading in the grip of a pandemic. Just to be
clear, Defoe himself was a small kid at the time of the Great Plague of
London. This first-person account may be based on the journals of his
uncle Henry Foe.
Three hundred and fifty-five years seems like a very long time ago. But the ideas and experiences in this book seem surprisingly contemporary, not just because of our circumstances. You can see why historians already call this time the “Early MODERN Era.” He keeps quoting bits of the weekly bills of mortality just like how we’re all pasting screenshots of the latest case numbers on social media.
Despite acknowledging that he is a layman, the narrator has a lot of insights based on observation about disease control. He criticises the shutting up of houses with sick and healthy household members together. This conflates isolation of the sick with quarantine, which properly applies to exposed but healthy people. The narrator notes that rich men who owned 2 houses and were able to send the sick family member away before the authorities shut up their house were often able to save the rest of the family. Chinese epidemiologists who studied the Wuhan outbreak came to the same conclusion – lockdown only slowed the spread, what stopped it was centralised quarantine.
Another epidemiological concept that’s been confirmed in modern studies is a “second wave” when people think it’s over and relax their precautions and rush back to urban centres.
There is also a heartwrenching conversation with a poor boatman who makes a living selling groceries to ship owners or merchants who are living aboard their ships to keep away from the city. Meanwhile he can’t go near his family because his wife and one of his children have the plague, and the child is probably dying. He has to keep himself healthy because they will starve otherwise. It reminded me of the plight of Uber drivers and workers in the “gig economy” or older informal economies who are struggling to make a living right now.
Not all is grim; there is also an entertaining account of two poor men who decide to leave the city, end up meeting up with a small group of other vagrants, and somehow end up convincing villagers that they are an entire gang of armed bandits.
By the way if you are not from London I highly recommend having Google Maps at hand while reading this.