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COVID-19 vs Plague – Reviewing Death Diagrams from 17th Century

But what these abstract images of death are doing in the face of the global catastrophe of the Coronavirus is not unlike what our ancestral rituals did in dealing with death.

Corona that came – or to speak more correctly, at least about Iran: Corona was brought to the country, Websites and blogs were filled with interactive maps and colorful charts, various diagrams and infographics, different animations and different illustrations of death and illness, the prevalence and trend of the deadly viral outbreak in cities and countries around the world. Newspapers, paper magazines and the visual media all began to display statistics and numbers and abstract data with the tools available to them of an incident dimension that could not be summarized in any number or sign: the destruction of human life and death. A being that is unable to reasonably communicate between these data and numbers and what they represent (a hypothetical being) will never come to terms with the painful reality and grief of losing people by resorting to colors and shapes and numbers.

But what these abstract images of death are doing in the face of the global catastrophe of the Coronavirus is not unlike what our ancestral rituals did in dealing with death. Mourning rituals, prayers for ancestral spirits, and now charts, numbers, maps, etc. all make it possible to digest the unfathomable and inevitable event of death, for those who have survived and want to continue their lives. They build a space for death that has come so close to them and their lives, where you can sit in front of death, and stare at it for hours without frosting from all the fright!

Headline of the news reads: “12 top world minds forecast the world’s future after Coronavirus”, “The movie that predicted Corona 10 years ago”, “Nobel Prize winner suggests the end of Coronavirus”, “Scientists recommend body immunity system boost: masturbation”, “Corona’s impacts will never disappear from your body and life”, “Coronavirus treatment discovered by Iranian scientists”, “Android app for Seventh Sajjadieh Prayer” [referring to Khamenei’s speech in Feb on how combat the virus], “Israel’s use of goblins against Iran” [another reference to Khamenei’s speech where he suggests , “From Anbarnasara [donkey’s dung] to viola oil, Coronavirus masterpieces “, “Coronavirus is a message from Heaven against homosexuality “and …

And none of these are not specific to today’s human or our era, not the “abstract representation of the face of death” in graphs and numbers, nor the duplicity and trendy market of superstitions and predictions.

356 years ago, in autumn, there were two cases of plague in London that were ignored. Then, a year later, in the spring of 1665, more cases of the disease were discovered which were covered up and the cause of death for them was published as typhus to the general public as typhus. In order to prevent public panic, these deaths were shown to have happened in only one or two areas of London. The machine of secrecy, concealment and lies couldn’t work for long in that era either and soon no government entity was able to conceal the deaths due to the contagious plague. The disease had spread, and the death horror has taken over the lives of Londoners. The wave of migration, unemployment and rising crime, deserted homes, mass starvation and mass hysteria took the place of peace and quiet life in London at the time.

Daniel Defoe, the author of the famous Robinson Crusoe novel, wrote a detailed account of the events of that year, published half a century later, in 1722 titled “A Journal of The Plague Year.” Although Daniel Defoe was a five-year-old boy, what he wrote based on his uncle’s memoirs and research was a work that was unique to that day and today is known as the founder of realism or “realistic literature” in the world. This work has been used in medical research for many years as a source for investigating the mechanism of epidemic outbreaks. Despite the careful description of the details and style of documenting the events, one can still feel the deep scarring left over from the horror of death and the plague on the spirit of a five-year-old child throughout this novel. It is as if the image of mass graves and piled up corpses all around the city never left him.

londons plague 1665Daniel Defoe, in “A Journal of The Plague Year”, describes the events of London from a fictional character of a businessman standpoint who collects and reports on surrounding events just like a modern-day reporter and journalist. Like us, he is rightly suspicious of the numbers released by government agencies and tries to find out the truth for himself. The source that Defoe uses to extract actual statistics is the then District Registry. Defoe provides a list. Gives order to numbers and figures. He puts them together and explores the relationships between them and puts them in the body of a work of art for the first time. In doing so, he paints a new face of death, a face different from the faces of religious rituals and masks and mourning ceremonies: the diagram of death. Daniel Defoe creates the “abstract face of death” for the modern man who would walk on this earth centuries later. The statistics comparison by Defoe reveals the government’s attempt to conceal the reality of the outbreak. Centuries have now passed from that London and those days. Time conditions changed. But by reading this book we will find that there has been no change in human behavior.

Together we read passages from this work by Daniel Defoe, our reporter from the 17th century:

An example of Daniel Defoe’s statistical research on the number of deaths in different areas of London over specific time periods

Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.

[…]The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times; in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales than ever they were before or since. Whether this unhappy temper was originally raised by the follies of some people who got money by it—that is to say, by printing predictions and prognostications—I know not; but certain it is, books frighted them terribly, such as Lilly’s Almanack, Gadbury’s Astrological Predictions, Poor Robin’s Almanack, and the like; also several pretended religious books, one entitled, Come out of her, my People, lest you be Partaker of her Plagues; another called, Fair Warning; another, Britain’s Remembrancer; and many such, all, or most part of which, foretold, directly or covertly, the ruin of the city. Nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who, like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, ‘Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed.’ I will not be positive whether he said yet forty days or yet a few days. Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night, like a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, ‘Woe to Jerusalem!’ a little before the destruction of that city. So this poor naked creature cried, ‘Oh, the great and the dreadful God!’ and said no more, but repeated those words continually, with a voice and countenance full of horror, a swift pace; and nobody could ever find him to stop or rest, or take any sustenance, at least that ever I could hear of.

The main source of Daniel Defoe’s statistical data: Report of the number of deaths in the census

I met this poor creature several times in the streets, and would have spoken to him, but he would not enter into speech with me or anyone else but held on his dismal cries continually.

[…] On the other hand it is incredible and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ ‘An universal remedy for the plague.’ ‘The only true plague water.’ ‘The royal antidote against all kinds of infection’;—and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

[…] ‘Tis sufficient from these to apprise any one of the humour of those times, and how a set of thieves and pickpockets not only robbed and cheated the poor people of their money, but poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations; some with mercury, and some with other things as bad, perfectly remote from the thing pretended to, and rather hurtful than serviceable to the body in case an infection followed.

Another example of statistics provided by Defoe

[…] But there was still another madness beyond all this, which may serve to give an idea of the distracted humour of the poor people at that time: and this was their following a worse sort of deceivers than any of these; for these petty thieves only deluded them to pick their pockets and get their money, in which their wickedness, whatever it was, lay chiefly on the side of the deceivers, not upon the deceived. But in this part I am going to mention, it lay chiefly in the people deceived, or equally in both; and this was in wearing charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations, to fortify the body with them against the plague; as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of possession of an evil spirit, and that it was to be kept off with crossings, signs of the zodiac, papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly the word Abracadabra, formed in triangle or pyramid, thus:—

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