August 16th 1665 It was dark before I could get home; and so land at church-yard stairs, where to my great trouble I met a dead Corps, of the plague, in the narrow ally, just bringing down a little pair of stairs - but I thank God I was not much disturbed at it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again. - Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703)
And ‘late abroad again’ it seems the people of Melbourne can’t be for some time as the Premier of Victoria introduced stage four lock-down restrictions last night. This means residents will be subject to a curfew for the next six weeks and are banned from travelling more than 5km (3 miles) from their home.
We can no longer have people simply out and about for no good reason whatsoever. It is not an easy decision to make but it is necessary and that’s why I’ve made it and that’s why police will be out in force and you will be stopped and you will be asked and need to demonstrate that you are lawfully out and you are not breaching that curfew. - Daniel Andrews, Victorian Premier
When the plague ravaged Pepys' native London in 1665, fatalities ran at around 20% of the population. The eventual tally for Covid is impossible to assess until we can observe current events from their yet-to-be-determined place in history. While I hope they will fall far short of the percentages of Pepys' day, we can still learn much from his experiences.
Comparing 1665 to 2020
Much like the arrival of Covid, when the plague hit London, Pepys was largely unconcerned, taking more interest in the war with the Dutch and never ceasing from dining out in the evening. In a sad manifestation of Santayana’s prophetic phrase, history seems to be repeating this time around with the latest resurgence coming from patrons frequenting bars and restaurants.
Much like some organisations today, Pepys maintained a BAU (business as usual) approach, even though burials in London were exceeding 6,000 a week. Today, non-essential services remain open as there are fears for the economy if the shops shut.
As the contagion bit hard, Pepys chronicled the flight from the city, mostly of doctors, lawyers and merchants. Then as now, only those with the financial means to do so can seek refuge in seclusion.
Perhaps the key point of difference is the modern capacity to manage the primary health and secondary economic / social impact of a pandemic. In Pepys' day, it was a brutal existence for people shut in their homes, begging or stealing food in a desperate effort to survive. There was no JobKeeper Payment system to help people keep their head above the waterline nor online services to deliver supplies. Thus while life may still be short, it is arguably less nasty and brutish than in 1665.
Yet for all the fear and contagion which springs from the pages of Pepys’s Diary, so too does a resounding stoic resolve in the face of adversity. We cannot know now where this pandemic will end, but we can know how it will be faced.
Down one road is panic and selfish alarm: people segregating and selfishly thinking only on what they have or can get.
Down another road is calm resolve and community action: people thinking of their impact on others, maintaining the known health authority guidance and looking out for others as they look out for themselves.
The former, road leads to a society which may survive, but will be greatly diminished for the experience. The latter path, opens opportunities to heal not just the physical, but also the psychological divisions which exist. To build a better community than we had yesterday.
Good night and good luck.