Sullivan, a columnist with New York magazine (and an early blogger – one of the best before it became too great a burden), provides some helpful perspective for our time by comparing it to year of the London plague (one year before the Great Fire):
Historians now rank the 1665 plague as the worst of that century (though much less severe than the Black Death of 1348). By September, as it peaked, there were 7,000 deaths a week. In COVID-19, the fatality rate is around one percent. In London in 1665, in a matter of seven months, around a quarter of the population perished. The number is vague because so many records were destroyed by the Great Fire of London, which broke out a year later. But it’s still staggering. A rough equivalent today would be 4 million deaths in the New York City metro area this year alone — with no real medical care, and people dropping dead on the streets.
Now imagine that after the deaths of those 4 million, much of Manhattan were to be burned to the ground by a massive and uncontrollable fire. That’s what Londoners had to handle in just two years: a pandemic of far greater scope than ours, and a conflagration that amounted to 9/11 several times over. And it was not the end of the world.
In fact, in just a couple of years, the population of the city had rebounded. The massive fire had killed much of the rodent population that had been spreading the fleas behind the plague. London was rebuilt, stone replaced wood, and Christopher Wren was brought in to design and replace the old Saint Paul’s Cathedral and over a dozen other landmarks of the city to this day.
What must have felt like an apocalypse of plague and fire became, with astonishing speed, a new city, forged anew by communal trauma, and soon to be the most powerful capital in the world. And somehow, Pepys lived through all of it, face-to-face with death, and never stopped living, maintaining a stoic cheerfulness and humor throughout. And today, in the richest country on Earth, with medical technology beyond Pepys’s wildest imagination, and a plague killing a tiny fraction of the population, some are wielding weapons in public to protest being asked to stay at home for a few more weeks and keep a social distance. Please. Get a grip.
Full column here. Read more »