Human history is littered with stories of plagues and we are currently facing yet another. This latest one is a respiratory virus, first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which has now infected thousands of Chinese citizens and spread to several other countries. It has been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization and has prompted Chinese authorities to quarantine several major cities.
Here in Derbyshire our last plague was in the village of Eyam, in the Peak District National Park. It began in 1665 when a flea-infested bundle of cloth arrived from London for the local tailor. Within a week his assistant George Vicars was dead and more began dying in the household soon after.
Eyam became famous because the villagers eventually agreed to quarantine themselves within the village to prevent the bubonic plague from spreading into the north of England. The plague ran its course over 14 months and one account states that it killed at least 260 villagers, with only 83 surviving out of a population of 350. But the surrounding towns and villages were not infected – so the villagers achieved their objective, but at great personal cost.
What can history tell us about quarantine and a more sustainable way of living which might contain such massive contagions?
In a society where everything is global – how can we possibly isolate ourselves for a few weeks to prevent human to human contact? Our food chains are so long and complex that even here in the UK we cannot feed ourselves for more than a few days. How can cities of 11 million people be isolated? Long distance travel is the norm and people can be halfway round the world in a day – longer than it takes an infection to incubate and show symptoms.
Another wicked sustainability issue?
Infectious diseases are a part of the cycle of life, but it is our lifestyles that turn them into pandemics. Can our political leadership enable us to develop a more sustainable lifestyle where quarantine is the standard response to an infection but where it does not destroy individual livelihoods?