Are we about to get a new Journal of the Plague Year? In that 1722 novel, Daniel Defoe’s protagonist gives a detailed, supposedly eyewitness account of the progress of the bubonic plague through London in 1665.
. . . in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague. Whereupon it was given in to the parish clerk, and he also returned them to the Hall; and it was printed in the weekly bill of mortality in the usual manner, thus—
Plague, 2. Parishes infected, 1.
The people showed a great concern at this, and began to be alarmed all over the town, and the more, because in the last week in December 1664 another man died in the same house, and of the same distemper. And then we were easy again for about six weeks, when none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner.
By the end of the novel, 100,000 are dead. Finally, the scourge abates.
“Nothing,” Defoe’s narrator writes, “but the immediate finger of God, nothing but omnipotent power, could have done it. The contagion despised all medicine; death raged in every corner; and had it gone on as it did then, a few weeks more would have cleared the town of all, and everything that had a soul. Men everywhere began to despair; every heart failed them for fear; people were made desperate through the anguish of their souls, and the terrors of death sat in the very faces and countenances of the people.”
It was all the fault of Donald Trump, of course, though Defoe neglects to point that out.
A week ago, I wrote about the president’s masterly press conference about the coronavirus. As Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) observed, the president’s decision to suspend flights between the United States and China early on in the epidemic was “the single most consequential and valuable thing” done to slow the course of the malady.
That’s not how his political opponents spun it, of course. The president was denounced as “racist,” “xenophobic,” etc. by the Left, but that talk dried up as panic began to take over. In that earlier column, I mentioned Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. He was writing about Tulipomania in 17th-century Holland—when a single tulip bulb might go for more than the price of your house—financial bubbles, and the like. But we seem to be seeing a medical version of that now.
As I have noted, we do not know how rapidly or how widely the virus will spread, nor do we know how deadly it will be. People over 65 seem to suffer more serious illnesses than younger people, especially if they have underlying health problems. As is the case with other maladies, the older and frailer you are, the more likely it is that you will die from the coronavirus.
That said, it is worth maintaining some perspective on the disease. In early February, the CDC estimated that at least 12,000 people had died from the flu from October 1, 2019 through February 1. That number might be as high as 30,000. So far, CDC estimates, some 31 million Americans have caught the flu this season. Somewhere between 200,000 and 370,000 of those have been hospitalized because of the virus.
As for deaths, the CDC estimates that it will probably equal or surpass the 2018-2019 season when there were 34,000 flu-related deaths in America. (The 2017-2018 season saw 61,000 deaths.) Writ large, the World Health Organization estimates that the flu kills between 290,000 and 650,000 annually.
Contrast those numbers with the numbers we have seen so far regarding the coronavirus. On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York. Perhaps that was the prudent thing to do. But I note that, as of today, there have been 78 who have tested positive for the virus in New York. Across the nation, more than 380 people have tested positive to coronavirus, and 19 people have died.
Are we witnessing the beginning of a new plague? Will we, in years to come, need our Daniel Defoe to provide a chronicle of a deadly scourge?
We do not know. But I suspect not. There will be more cases and more deaths. But we are reacting, and perhaps overreacting, to limit the spread of a disease whose lethality seems scarcely more serious than the common flu?
I am not quite sure when we will be able to look back, probably with some slight embarrassment, and say we really overdid the sanitary wipes, the face masks, and the paranoia. Still, the great Balliol don Benjamin Jowett was right: “Precautions are always blamed. When they are successful, they are deemed to have been unnecessary.”