Week 11 Reading: Journal of the Plague Year, 2020

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    In reading the excerpts of Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” my automatic response (as was many of my peers and likely the intended effect of the selection) was to compare this calamity with the current situation regarding the spread of SARS-CoV-2. What was most shocking was how little human behavior has changed over centuries despite the advent of novel biomedical technologies and enhanced understanding of epidemiology. In Defoe’s piece, he explains that while plague has become pandemic, the written word has not. Information must, therefore, be exchanged person-to-person. Although many of my educational compatriots likely acquire knowledge from relatively unbiased news sources (as was demonstrated in the chat during today’s lecture), I have been amazed by the number of “prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales” being spread online in the public forum. Scientific papers are rarely (if ever) quoted on Facebook, social media posts provide hyperlinks to other social media posts (creating an ouroboros of misinformation), and public personalities without relevant degrees disseminate uneducated opinions disguised as fact. Even whole countries may be engaged in geopolitical deception taking “care to keep it [incidence rates] as much from the knowledge of the public as possible.” Without reliable sources of information, people of the past looked to the stars as people now look to the “stars” (rock, movie, etc.) for guidance. In Defoe’s tale, a comet is described as heralding the plague or directly infecting the city with “something peculiar” — a symbol of the cosmological source of contagion. Our comet is the transcontinental Boeing 747, capable of quickly turning local epidemic to global pandemic. I additionally found parallels with the boxes of statistics interspersed between more personal accounts: extraordinary numbers and graphs and maps show the spread of disease, providing a rational approach to monitoring spread submerged in lamentations of god’s wrath and subsequent praise for his benevolence (the fluctuation of faith). I find there is a disconnect between the qualitative, politicized world of quarantine and the quantitative, clinical nature of the Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Tracker that I’ve left on my monitor since the extension of Spring Break. The former offers conclusions but frequently disregards proof; the latter provides enumeration but fails to elicit explanation. Like Defoe’s Londoners of long ago, we are left to contend with the disconnect.

    – Kyle Lambert

    Zoe Tew

    I think the media is proving to be very helpful, because unlike in Defoe’s case where the disease was only understood and heard about through individual, face to face communication, we are able to see the severity of the spread and learn ways to limit transmission. Despite the benefit of the media, I completely agree that it is also become a platform for fake news, conspiracies, and opinions to spread. All of these things are detrimental in our understanding of the virus and can negatively impact how we cope with it. I have noticed that people have taken to social media to rant about their opinion on the economic dispute on whether or not to continue to shut down and I have heard people spin that into a conspiracy about the election and politics. I think media needs to be used to raise awareness and keep the population properly informed- not just on statistics but also a more descriptive explanation of what’s happening like you said.

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