The coronavirus pandemic has focused long-overdue attention on essential workers. Now Americans are debating a new question: During a public health crisis, what is an essential protest?
In April and May, with stay-at-home orders in place across much of the country, a small, highly visible minority of Americans protested in state capitals, such as in Michigan, Wisconsin and Colorado, as well as on the beaches of Orange County, Calif. Carrying signs that read “Give Me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19,” some anti-lockdown protesters claimed that the government had trampled on their rights. Others dismissed the risk from the pandemic as overhyped, even insisting that the coronavirus is a hoax.
These protests continued through Memorial Day weekend. But the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 almost immediately changed the American political landscape. Beginning May 26, protests against police brutality and systemic racism spread from Minneapolis to every state in the country, as well as to cities around the globe.
Predictably, right-wing TV and social media personalities have claimed that government leaders and public health officials who advocated for stay-at-home orders and phased reopenings and now support anti-racism protests are hypocrites. The anti-lockdown protests, according to this logic, have been vindicated. Even thoughtful conservative commentators fail to question the false equivalency between protesting to get a haircut and protesting against the fundamental threat racism poses to black lives.
In often jarring fashion, the 1665 London outbreak of the bubonic plague reveals a crucial difference: Lives are put at risk, and even lost, when denial and recklessness undercut official measures to combat a public health crisis. But lives can be protected and saved when citizens assume short-term risk to serve the long-term well-being of their community.
The Black Death, as the plague came to be known, had killed perhaps half of Europe’s population in the mid-1300s. The scars of this pandemic remained fresh, because the plague continued to flare up in smaller outbreaks with a terrifying regularity. In 1665, the plague reappeared in London with a vengeance, ultimately killing more than 100,000 people.
In April, King Charles II took action, relying on the anti-plague playbook used earlier by his grandfather and father, James I and Charles I. The most questionable of the king’s “rules and orders” for combating the plague was No. 11, a forceful stay-at-home order: “That if any house be infected ... such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for fourty days, and have a red cross, and Lord have mercy upon us, in capital letters affixed on the door.”
The king’s order to shut up infected houses triggered open resistance. In April 1665, a “riot” broke out in the parish of St. Giles in the Fields. Following protocol, authorities shut up a tavern, drew a red cross on its door and posted the ominous “Lord have mercy upon us” notice. What followed was both shocking and perhaps predictable. “The said cross and paper were taken off,” the door was opened, and, “in a riotous manner,” the tavern’s proprietors and patrons took to the streets with “promiscuous” abandon.
September 1665 marked the high point of plague deaths in London. Although undercounting was inevitable, the “bills of mortality” announced thousands of deaths per week. People died in the streets. Bodies were found in alleyways. The burial pits exceeded capacity. Many feared, with good reason, that London’s dead would soon outnumber the living.
However, in the midst of a plague epidemic, some Londoners apparently were more afraid of being “shut up” by the government. In a letter dated Oct. 8, 1665, the civil servant Thomas Povey complained to Joseph Williamson, the undersecretary to the secretary of state, that “there having died more than 300 in Brentford and Isleworth, and death is now become so familiar, and the people so insensible of danger, that they look upon such as provide for the public safety as tyrants and oppressors.”
Daniel Defoe, the celebrated author of “Robinson Crusoe” (1719), was a young boy when the 1665 plague raged in London, and it is likely that his family left London at their earliest opportunity. In 1720, when the plague broke out in the French port city of Marseille, Defoe was alarmed. He also saw a publishing opportunity.
Drawing on historical documents, family lore and the published reminiscences of members of the clergy and doctors, Defoe quickly dashed off “A Journal of the Plague Year” (1722), a gripping piece of historical fiction that purported to be a firsthand account of the 1665 London plague written by a mysterious man known only as “H.F.”
Almost every page of “A Journal of the Plague Year” shows how fear and anxiety, depression and desperation, were the order of the day. Terrified Londoners resisted the “shutting up of houses.” Some lashed out violently, prompting H.F. to note disapprovingly that “terror and apprehension” were apt to lead people “into a thousand weak, foolish, and wicked things.”
But Defoe’s historical fiction highlights another danger: the impulse to return too quickly to the old normal, and even to downplay the dangers of the plague.
When the first slight decline in plague deaths is reported, H.F. senses that a “notion” had run “like lightning” through the hearts and minds of Londoners. A week before, they had “shunned” one another. Now, Londoners viewed the plague as nothing more than an “ordinary fever.” Throwing caution to the wind, “they opened shops, went about streets, did business, and conversed with anybody that came in their way.” In short, they reclaimed their “liberty.” But there was a price to be paid for ignoring the king’s anti-plague “rules and orders” and casting aside common sense. As H.F. reports: “this imprudent, rash conduct cost a great many their lives.”
H.F. condemns Londoners who aggressively violated public health measures and foolishly denied the seriousness of the plague. But H.F. also singles out for particular praise those who risked their lives to help their community survive the plague. Physicians “ventured their lives so far as even to lose them in the service of mankind.” Civil servants stuck to their posts, maintained public safety and administered relief measures for the poor. Although they were disproportionately affected by the plague, the poor were sustained by a “brutal courage” and continued to perform many of London’s essential services, such as “tending the sick, watching houses shut up, carrying infected persons to the pest house, and, which was still worse, carrying the dead away to their graves.”
When he wrote “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Defoe had what we, at the moment, do not have in regard to the coronavirus: the benefit of historical hindsight. We should heed his warning, from three centuries ago, that reopening too quickly (especially without adequate safety measures) might “cost a great many their lives.” But we can also transform his depiction of the poor into a call to action: As two pandemics — coronavirus and systemic racism — converge, it may take a “brutal courage” to continue protesting for what is essential: equality and justice.