A few months ago, my five-year-old daughter developed a fascination with the Black Death. Neither of us can remember why. A couple of nights ago, I asked her again and she said, “Because it’s interesting.” And she’s right. In October, 1347, the Black Death, a variant of bubonic plague, arrived in Europe and began to kill about half the population, changing the social order and transforming the continent forever. My daughter’s interest in the plague does not come and go, exactly, but there have been times when she has got too close to the subject. In December, we went to the Museum of London, which has an ominous video about the outbreak—think tapestry and roaring flames—and she didn’t like that at all. But her general position is one of cool morbidness. Last month, when she and her friends at school heard about the coronavirus, some of them pretended they had caught it. A teacher told them off. My daughter came home, full of advice about washing our hands. “It’s just like the Black Death,” she said.
Our usual way of engaging with the plague is to settle down with an Usborne Young Reading history book, by Rob Lloyd Jones, published in 2018. “A fat black rat scurried down a gangplank,” is how Chapter 1, “Dark News,” begins. The great pestilence, as it was also known, originated around the Black Sea, infected populations in the Middle East and Asia, and then came ashore in Italy. The first few pages of my daughter’s history book show medieval people going about their medieval lives, with very little social distancing. We always enjoy a woman on page 5, who is tipping a bucket of refuse out of a second-floor window and onto a busy marketplace. “I like spotting the rats,” my daughter said earlier this week, when we read the book for what was perhaps the thirtieth time. By January, 1348, the plague was in the cities of northern Italy. “In Siena, shoemaker Agnolo di Tura watched the nightmare scenes and wrote, ‘This is the end of the world,’ ” it says on page 15. “To most people that is exactly how it seemed.”
We read the book a little more soberly than usual this week, with not so many silly grimaces. “Look, they are setting fire to them,” my daughter said quietly, on page 23, which deals with the pogroms against Jews, who were blamed for spreading the plague. She raised her eyebrows at the people breathing through handfuls of herbs. We acknowledged the accidental good sense of Pope Clement VI, who sat surrounded by flaming torches, to drive away the disease—they may have killed the fleas that spread it. My favorite page shows a village, overgrown, after the worst has passed. “Many people began to have more control over their lives than they had before the plague,” the book says. My daughter is normally pretty tired by this point. She likes a drawing of contemporary archeologists, in high-visibility overalls, excavating a plague pit before it gets covered by a new railway or bridge. “That’s what I am going to do,” she says. “Dig up people who died during the Black Death.” And then I carry her up to bed.
In the United Kingdom, almost all the schools remain open. The authorities have hesitated to close them because of the consequences for everything else: health-care workers staying at home, potentially vulnerable grandparents being roped in for emergency child care, poorer children going hungry. “There are significant downsides,” Matt Hancock, the British Health Secretary, told Parliament earlier this week. “That is why we have no plans for a mass closure of schools.” A saving grace of the virus has been the seeming invulnerability of children. So now they bomb around—in London, anyway—enjoying the first days of spring, with permanent little droplets of snot on the ends of their noses.
It seems unlikely to continue. Keeping the schools open has been part of Britain’s generally tentative approach to the virus. As of March 12th, the country had five hundred and ninety cases of COVID-19—up thirty per cent in a single day—and ten deaths. But the authorities have resisted putting in place the travel restrictions, bans on public gatherings, stringent testing, and quarantine procedures that appear to be successful in slowing the spread of the virus elsewhere. (After seventy cases and one death, Ireland closed all its schools until March 29th.) Instead, the British government has announced that it will move from the “containment” phase of its coronavirus strategy to the “delay” phase. There is no indication that this is much of a choice. On Thursday, officials announced that between five thousand and ten thousand people are probably infected and that testing would now be restricted to those admitted to hospital for treatment. Perhaps we can look forward to other stages, such as “failure,” “total contagion,” or “futility.”
As ever, the British attitude to an emergency like the coronavirus is somewhat revealing. The media invokes the “Blitz spirit”—of unflappable civilians during the Second World War—and the government sets off down a slightly different path from those of other nations. It is difficult to know how much of this derives from a superiority complex and how much from a particular sense of fatalism. In 2011, planning for a possible flu pandemic, British officials calculated that restricting air travel by ninety per cent would delay the peak of an outbreak by only a week or two—hence the borders remained open and the planes continued to fly. The coronavirus response is being guided by the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the “nudge unit,” at the U.K.’s Cabinet Office. It was set up in 2010 to improve the way the government persuades people to do things. Inherent in the nation’s light-touch approach so far seems to be the calculation that British people might not be very good at following the rules, or maintaining civility, for very long when the shutdown finally comes. “It is going to spread further,” Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said on Thursday. “I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
As it happens, I have been reading about the “Blitz spirit” in the library recently—about how it was most likely a heady amalgam of propaganda, social conformity, and private fear. The recollections of the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster struck me as apt during this current crisis. “During ‘the blitz’ so long as I remained indoors I was ceaselessly assaulted by what psychiatrists so unfeelingly describe as ‘irrational fears,’ ” Lancaster wrote in his autobiography, “All Done from Memory.” “But on escape into the wide open spaces they were promptly transformed by the patter of shrapnel into anxieties to which my reason afforded every justification.” Yesterday morning, I dropped my daughter off at the school gates. There was the usual knot of families waiting. Babies in pushchairs. Grandparents. Runny noses. We were a minute or two early. “Shall we run through the crowd?” my daughter asked. I shook my head. Everyone kissed and hugged goodbye and then we all walked very quickly away.
What it means to contain and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.
How much of the world is likely to be quarantined?
Donald Trump in the time of coronavirus.
The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine could be widely available.
We are all irrational panic shoppers.
The strange terror of watching the coronavirus take Rome.
How pandemics change history.