How is a plague like a war?

‘Journal of the plague year’ contains very little, if no description on the medical treatment and cure of the dreadful plague that raged the city, which is understandable given the underdeveloped health system of London in the year 1655 compared with modern days’. However, during our time, the discourse of plague and its treatment has changed into something very much resembling war-fare, with US President Donald Trump talking about how he ‘fights’ the COVID-19 and how the virus cannot ‘defeat’ him.

This article of The Alantic perfectly illustrates this point.

“In the Western world, bouts of illness are regularly described as “battles.” Viruses and other pathogens are “enemies” to be “beaten.” Patients are encouraged to “be strong” and praised for being “fighters.”

This ‘battle’ against the virus, like any ‘battle’ against illiteracy, hunger, poverty, etc. saw a foregone victory belonging to the affluent in our society. Defoe has shown us that since the year 1655, only the rich can afford to flee the city and seek refuge in the country in the times of plague.

And remember what we said in our Severance discussion, about the plague serving to eradicate all social labels, only leaving one with the state of either ‘strong/not sick’ or ‘infected’, no matter what one’s religion, class, and political leaning is? Dafoe affirmed that another matter can have the same effect – death, as he described a burial ritual in ‘Journal of the plague year’:

“[…] seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials”


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  1. I’m so glad you linked to this Atlantic article, Linh. I have meant all weekend to send that link to the class. It’s a great example of how the language we use to talk about a pandemic/disease contributes to its social effects (and, even, to the ongoing medical crisis). Ed Yong has been one of the great chroniclers of this pandemic, at least from a US POV.

  2. Hi Linh, about “‘Journal of the plague year’ contains very little, if no description on the medical treatment and cure of the dreadful plague that raged the city” – I actually thought that Defoe did a decent job on talking about this as much as his character could in his fictional realm of knowledge. I would like to take your attention to some sections in this regard to illustrate my point. From pages 45-50, Defoe takes his time to criticize and reflect on all sorts of Quack medicine for preservation and treatment of the infection. In pages 53 -54, he talks about failure of medicines and treatments made by actual doctors. On page 123, he also gives a brief account of the contemporary treatment, with regards to how the surgeons treated plague patients. From page 348- 350, Defoe further talks about the medicines prescribed by physicians of his time and especially his conversations with his friend Dr. Heath. I just wanted to highlight these for you and it would be great to hear your thoughts on these sections.

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