Daniel Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year': Lessons leaving a pandemic

23 Nov 2021

What insights might be gleaned from Daniel Defoe's 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year as we move out of the current coronavirus pandemic? In this blog post, David Raper, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sport, Health and Community, wonders whether the resilience and community spirit experienced over the last 18 months can be harnessed for the benefit of economic and social recovery.

As we move away from Covid-19 restrictions, the Government is talking up a national 'recovery' through narratives of 'Build Back Better' and 'Levelling Up'.

This aspiration, especially in tackling health inequalities, is set within place-based notions and community action: meeting local needs through local knowledge and assets, and using feel-good messages about how we can take the resilience, co-ordination and community spirit experienced through the pandemic, and harness it for the benefit of economic and social recovery.

But to what extent can local, place-based, approaches truly hang on to strengths gained through the pandemic?

In the early days of the pandemic there were a variety of articles that reflected on A Journal of the Plague Year, written by Daniel Defoe in 1722. Links and comparisons were readily found between our behaviours and anxieties, and those of our forebears experiencing the Plague in the 1600s. I have returned to his Journal, to see how this might provide insights as we move out of our Twenty-first Century pandemic.

Place and belonging

Levelling up is being positioned at the level of 'place' by the Government. Place might be variously defined as geographic, economic, social or cultural, but as a whole is something that defines and locates us, and affords us identity. Defoe used 'place' to locate and make familiar the story he narrated. He was specific in naming locations, parishes, streets, and buildings, for example describing new burial grounds such as "a piece of ground beyond Goswell Street, near Mount Hill, being some remains of the fortifications of the City". In this description Defoe enables us to feel familiar with the place, through its location and history.

This approach is key in enabling a sense of belonging and engagement. Where there is local connection, a place-based approach becomes attractive as it "enables collaboration among local services, statutory and non-statutory, to meet an areas unique needs" (Parliament, 2018).

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development say: "A central dimension of building back better is the need for a people-centred recovery that focuses on wellbeing, improves inclusiveness and reduces inequality". And there are hopes for voluntary and community organisations to be fully included in funding for levelling up, prioritising social need as much as infrastructure.

The role of the community

Careful consideration of the role of different community stakeholders in supporting recovery is important. Undoubtedly, our recognition of public sector professionals during the coronavirus pandemic echoes that highlighted by Defoe. He wrote, " I think it ought to be recorded to the honour of such men [sic], as well as clergy, physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, magistrates, and officers of every kind, as also all useful people who ventur'd their lives in discharge of their duty, as most certainly all such as stay'd did so to the last degree; and several of these kinds did not only venture but lose their lives on that sad occasion".

Defoe noted "the prudence of the magistrates, their charity, their vigilance for the poor, and for preserving good order". However, charity came from communities too. Villagers provided support to people who had left London and found themselves sheltering in the countryside. Defoe describes how "the inhabitants of the villages would, in pity, carry them food". Many churches stayed open, delivering assemblies and sermons for repentance and prayer, but overall acting as a source of comfort to the people of London. Defoe described an integrated set of activities that included health professionals, constables, alderman, the Church, communities, residents, traders and so-on - all contributing to the wellbeing of the parishes of London.

Returning to 'normal'

Restrictions were removed in England on 19 July 2021, spurred by high levels of immunisation and a political will to end curbs on people's 'freedoms'. A key element of 'building back' is this return to more normal social and economic existence. This was cautioned in the media, and by scientists, through fears of an unmanageable rise in Covid cases, and resultant NHS overwhelm and increased death rate. Defoe described similar fears, telling of families that were too hasty to return to normal life, and subsequently falling ill. He wrote that all the magistrates "cou'd do, was warn and caution the people not to entertain in their houses, or converse with any people they knew were from infected places. But they might as well have talk'd to the air...".

However, at the time of writing, levels of Covid-19, while high and still causing concern, do seem to be remaining somewhat stable, so, much like London in 1666, it feels like "the disease was enervated and its malignity spent" and "even the physicians themselves were surprised at it".

As the tide of the Plague continued to abate, Defoe noted how it was an 'agreeable surprise' that reported deaths dropped and that: "a secret surprise and smile of joy sat on every bodies face; they shook one another by the hands in the streets, who would hardly go on the same side of the way with one another before". It is evident that we are equally returning to our social and cultural lives with some enthusiasm, with a return to sport (Euro 2021, Wimbledon, cricket (Test and the Hundred)), music festivals, theatres, cafes and pubs, all reopening and people are seen to be enjoying returned 'freedoms'.

Building back better?

As we move toward 'normal' lives, how easily could 'place-based' gains, obtained through the pandemic, be lost?

Defoe noted that when society was scared and locked down, it may well have "promised to have more charity for the future". But the two final paragraphs of Defoe's Journal point to his fears, as society moved out of the Plague (though he would write no more, he said, for fear of being "counted censorious, and perhaps unjust").Defoe worried about "the unthankfulness and return of all sorts of wickedness among us". He reflected that in a short period of time people felt braver about participating in social life, and that people were very thankful for this return to normality. But all too quickly people were wont to forget the hardships, and then only play lip service to the 'good' that carried them through the plague, and delivered them into the 'new normal'.

For place-based approaches to work, people's attachment to their local area needs to remain strong. Certainly, the Government will rely on this, saying in terms of levelling up: "Place matters. Many people are rooted to their local area because of its civic identity and their social and family connections" (HM Treasury, 2021).

However, pre-pandemic there were already concerns about a loss of community spirit, and there have been a range of government moves to strengthen civic society, not least through ideas such as the Big Society and asset-based approaches to community work. So, if we do anything right now, it will be imperative we capture the community spirit, and sense of place, gained since Spring 2020.

The question then, is what can the Government do to enable an ongoing attachment and responsibility to place, balanced with a return to our broader economic and social lives?

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