Defoe’s Plague Warning

“I recommend it to the Charity of all good People to look back, and reflect duly upon the Terrors of the Time; and whoever does so will see, that it is not an ordinary Strength that cou’d support it, it was not like appearing in the Head of an Army, or charging a Body of Horse in the Field; but it was charging Death it self on his pale Horse; to stay was indeed to die, and it could be esteemed nothing less.”

–Daniel Defoe A Journal of the Plague Year

Defoe’s novel can still be instructional today. Plagues are not history. The Spanish Flu killed over 20 million people between 1918 and 1919. In recent years the world has seen outbreaks of Ebola and Sars, both of which caused no small amount of anxiety. In the 21st Century, one can hardly go a day without hearing about the impending Bird Flu pandemic. Despite our vast knowledge of diseases and the way they spread, we live in a world where an infection can travel from Europe to America in about twelve hours. Individuals, societies, and governments will face challenges during the next plague on our connected world Defoe and his contemporaries could not have imagined.

Nature can be a cruel mother when she gets serious about balancing things out. I look at Robert Hooke’s sinister flea from his Micrographia and a chill races down my spine. The people saw their killer in 1665 but could not recognize it. What do we see and fail to recognize today?

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