No pain, no gain: Reflections on getting the Covid vaccination

The vaccination centre is in a church hall, in a village three or four miles from Platypus Towers. I didn’t know the building even existed until the start of last week when I got the letter inviting me to log on to the internet to book my jab, but I’m pleased to make its acquaintance. Community venues are essential if vaccinations are to be rolled out in line with the government’s ambitious target, and although the place is modest and a little down-at-heel it’s more than adequate.

The operation is well organised by the NHS, with plenty of staff on hand to do what needs to be done, checking my temperature and personal details, giving guidance and reassurance, ushering me here and there as necessary, and finally administering the injection with cheerful good humour. Within 15 minutes I’m back outside in the fresh air, clutching an information leaflet advising on possible side effects of the vaccination.

PHOTO CREDIT: CDC via Unsplash

So far, so good. For the next few hours I get no reaction at all and almost forget that I’ve just had the jab. But by mid-evening I begin to feel feverish. Within an hour it seems like I have a bad dose of flu. My limbs ache and I’m shivering violently, and I’m so cold that I resort to putting on an outdoor fleece over my indoor clothes, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I even wear my woolly hat while watching television, which Mrs P finds hilarious.

Finally I’ve had enough and stumble upstairs, collapsing into bed clutching the hot water bottle and still wearing my fleece and woolly hat. I’ve had worse nights, but not often. However by the next morning I’m feeling much better, and definitely a lot warmer. I can only assume that my reaction to the vaccine is proof positive that it’s doing what it’s meant to do, priming my immune system to fight off any Covid viruses that I might encounter in the future

* * *

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the side effects of the jab. It’s a small price to pay for the Covid protection that it will give me in the future. As the saying goes, no pain no gain.

And for god’s sake, we need to understand that things could be so much worse. It’s only around a year since Covid started making its presence felt in the UK, and yet already effective vaccines have been developed and more than 18 million Brits have received their first dose. That is truly extraordinary, and in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the pandemic we should recognise that if this virus had emerged, say, half a century ago, our ability to deal with it would have been so much less.

While I don’t for one moment wish to minimise the suffering and hardship the virus has caused – I too have lost a family member to this disease, and friends have also lost loved ones – I’m relieved that it’s hit now and not when I was a kid. Today scientists are better able to find ways of containing, if not eliminating, coronavirus, and doctors have more treatment options to help those who have already been infected by it. Meanwhile, internet and communications technology allows many of us to avoid contact with Covid altogether by working remotely, ordering stuff online to be safely delivered to our front doors, and staying in touch virtually with friends and family.

I also recognise that I’m privileged, a comfortably well-off citizen of a wealthy, sophisticated nation. The other morning the BBC radio news made the point that around 135 nations have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine. Realistically, governments are going to look after their own citizens first – that’s what governments do – but having done that they have the chance to do a good thing, to do the right thing by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, has access to the vaccine, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, wealth or personal circumstances.

Even better, rich governments like ours could undertake such action as an absolute good, on the basis of an overriding moral imperative and without regard to any potential strategic advantage or economic benefit. I’m probably being a bit naïve here, but a man can dream!

Working together we can put Covid back in its box and maybe, in the process, start to build a better world. Now wouldn’t that be something, one truly positive outcome to emerge from the recent annus horribilis that has taken so many lives, and ruined so many more.

* * *

Postscript: Mrs P had to wait another four weeks for her first jab. Other than a bit of a sore arm she suffered absolutely no side effects at all. Huh!

Time to look forward (The Show Must Go On)

What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.

I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.

From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.

Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.

Time to look forward

And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?

* * *

About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.

Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:

……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.

Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end

The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:

I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in
On with the show

The show must go on.

A funeral in the time of Covid

Milly’s been sick for almost two years, going downhill steadily as Motor Neurone Disease tightens its grip. It’s a cruel condition, remorseless, destroying her body but leaving her mind intact. Helpless, she watches herself slowly waste away. When she finally passes we are sad to say goodbye, but relieved that her suffering is finally over.

The church in the village where Milly lived is closed, being too small for services to be conducted safely while the virus is still active. Instead, the funeral is moved to one that is a little larger, a few miles from her home. It’s a decent sized country church and probably seats around 200 people in normal times, but because of the virus, attendance today is by invitation only and limited to just 30 mourners. Others wishing to pay their respects must stand outside, and listen to the service relayed on loudspeakers.

We put on our facemasks before entering. Only the pews in the nave are available; others in the aisles on the left and the right are out-of-bounds. To facilitate social distancing each pew is limited to just two mourners, the first pair sitting to the left, those in the row behind them to the right, and so on. It looks and feels surreal, this funeral is in the time of Covid.

The priest takes his place, wearing a clear plastic visor. He welcomes us, and apologises that this will not be the sort of funeral to which we are accustomed. It doesn’t matter, we think, we’re simply pleased that we are able to gather here to pay our respects. The social distancing, the facemasks, the other restrictions, none are of any lasting consequence when seen in the context of the life that Milly has lived and lost.

The coffin bearers enter. Incomprehensibly, while everyone else in the church is masked-up, they aren’t. Why? It’s inconsistent and makes no sense, but that could be said of so much of the official response to Covid-19. Our government is clearly making it up as they go along, and while I don’t seek to minimise the challenges they have faced I do worry that they simply aren’t up to the job. I’m tempted to say that they’re a joke, but plainly this is no laughing matter.

The service begins: the prayers, the Bible readings, the eulogy. All standard stuff, swiftly and efficiently executed. But no hymns. The priest advises us that singing is not currently permitted at religious services, as it increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Instead he flips a switch, and a recording of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind fills the air. It’s a familiar hymn that most of us learned in primary school and, although we’re not allowed to sing out loud, as I glance around me I sense several mourners mouthing the words within the privacy of their facemasks.

The end, when it comes, is unexpected. Today would have been Milly’s 89th birthday, and as the coffin bearers carry her from the church the priest flips his switch again and Happy Birthday to You echoes around us. It’s a bit quirky, and therefore in keeping with the rest of the morning’s proceedings. We are reminded that, although we are here to mourn, today is also a celebration of a life well lived. Covid-19 cannot and will not be allowed to distract us from this simple truth.

Rest In Peace, Milly.

Missing the Birdfair, missing the birds

Last weekend should have been one of the highlights of our year, three whole days at the British Birdwatching Fair. Affectionately known as Birdfair, it’s an annual celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond. I blogged about it last year; you can read my post here. Birdfair is an important milestone in our calendar, marking the passing of another summer, and Mrs P and I were devastated – but not surprised – that Covid-19 played havoc with it in 2020.

Donate with PayPal button

Instead, Birdfair went virtual, with a range of lectures, workshops and other stuff presented online. “Entry” was free, but we were pleased to make a significant donation to support this year’s BirdLife International conservation project, which is to protect Borneo’s spectacular Helmeted Hornbill from the ravages of the illegal wildlife trade.

The virtual Birdfair was a good try, but inevitably lacked some of the magic that happens when thousands of people passionate about wildlife and conservation are physically gathered together. And that vague sense of disappointment just about sums up our 2020 birding year, which – courtesy of Covid-19 – has been a bit short on excitement.

Middleton Hall

Inevitably, therefore, our thoughts have turned to happier, pre-Covid days. The RSPB’s Middleton Lakes reserve lies on the Staffordshire / Warwickshire border, just up the road from historic Middleton Hall, an impressive Grade II listed building dating – in part – from the medieval period.

The reserve is managed as a refuge for wintering wildfowl, breeding wetland birds and passage migrants. Formerly a flourishing hub of the gravel extraction industry, the site covers 160 hectares (395 acres). It was acquired by the RSPB in 2007, and the conservation charity has been working hard ever since to return the ravaged landscape to nature.

When we visited in May 2019 it was the common woodland birds that were most evident, attracted by strategically distributed piles of seeds, nuts and other goodies. Some of the adults were wearing their breeding finery, but others looked bedraggled, worn down by the rigours of parenthood.

Meanwhile scruffy juveniles were doing their best to blend into the background, and yet simultaneously demanding to be fed again and again. Typical fledgling behaviour, of course, and rather endearing unless you happen to be the poor, harassed parent of said fledgling!

At one point a sneaky Grey Squirrel, unobserved by the birds, slipped in and stole food that was intended just for them. He looked in peak condition, and not at all ashamed of his blatant thievery.

As well as the “usual suspects” we encountered a few surprises as we wandered the reserve. In particular we were delighted to hear a cuckoo – so rare these days – and to glimpse a Small Copper butterfly, which is a colourful species we rarely come across. They, and all the more familiar birds and animals we spotted, made the day memorable.

Small Copper

Reserves like Middleton Lakes raise the spirits, demonstrating that if it’s given a chance nature will fight back and reclaim land that has been wrecked by man. When the Covid-19 madness is finally done with we’ll certainly return to see what else it has to offer.

Simple pleasures

We’d got big plans for 2020. No overseas visits – we wanted to spend a full year in the UK recovering from our 2019 New Zealand adventure – but plenty of travel here at home: a week in Norfolk, a few days in Liverpool, a fortnight in Cornwall, a long weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland, and a Scottish odyssey centred around a two-weeks stay in the Orkney Islands. But Covid-19 has blown our plans out of the water: we’re going nowhere in 2020.

Instead, 2020 has become a year of simple pleasures. For more than three months we barely left the house, other than to buy food, so there was plenty of time to read. As a means of escape I’m working my way through the Jeeves novels and short stories by controversial novelist PG Wodehouse. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is claimed by some to be the funniest writer of all time in the English language. That’s overstating his abilities, I reckon, but he’s definitely brought me some welcome comic relief in recent weeks.

Written over a period of 60 years between 1915 and 1975, the Jeeves stories comprise a series of tales about upper class buffoon Bertie Wooster, a supremely stupid representative of the English idle rich who’s always getting into scrapes, and Jeeves, his smart, suave and sophisticated personal manservant, who invariably comes to his rescue. The early 20th century class system portrayed by Wodehouse is achingly absurd – grotesque, even – and one is left wondering how Britain ever achieved its prominent position on the international stage when ineffectual prats like Wooster ruled the roost.

My lockdown reading!

The Jeeves stories allow us to glance over our shoulders at a (thankfully) long-lost world, one in which rich White Englishmen did what they liked and everyone else did what they were told. However the books are wittily written, and as long as we remember the historical context and laugh at the appalling aristocracy rather than with them, it’s just harmless, escapist nonsense. And god knows, in the year of Covid-19, we all need opportunities to escape.

Speaking of escapism, we’ve also been using lockdown constructively to binge our way through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. We missed out on it first time around, but if ever there was an opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about it’s now, when we’ve got loads of time on our hands and not a lot to do with it.

Small Tortoiseshells have been common this year

And what a treat it’s been, an epic fantasy, a seething cauldron of death and deceit, dwarves and dragons, debauchery and depravity. Blood and guts litter the landscape in nearly every episode, while power-mad tyrants battle for ultimate control and leave mayhem in their wake. To be honest, it seems not unlike a normal day in the politics of your average western democracy.

For an old cynic like me it’s always been tempting to assume that something as popular as Game of Thrones must be cheap and nasty, just populist rubbish that combines mass appeal with minimal merit. It isn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. The production values are superb, the characterisation vivid, the narrative complex and compelling. There are few positive aspects of Covid-19, but for us one of them has been creating the space and motivation to finally watch a TV show that just about everyone else on the planet has already seen. Love those dragons!

With opportunities to go out and about strictly limited, initially by government edict and then by our own caution, we’ve spent more time than ever before in our little garden. Thanks to my bad back and knackered knees I don’t look after the garden as well as I should, and it therefore has a slightly wild and unkempt appearance, like my Covid-19 hairstyle. But despite this – or perhaps because of it – the birds and the bees and the butterflies have visited regularly throughout the summer.

2020 has provided an abundance of bumblebees

One day I even spotted a bat, clinging to a pondside plant in broad daylight. It was during a hot spell and I assume he’d gone to the pond to take on water. He took off before Mrs P could grab her camera, circled two or three times around the garden before flying away. A rare treat, something we’d probably have missed in a “normal” year when we’re away from home for much of the time.

Less rare, but still a treat, is a visit from Milky Bar. Regular readers of this blog will know all about Milky Bar, a local cat who claims our garden as his own. Although he occasionally exerts himself by hunting insects, he is probably the most idle cat in existence and spends most of his time with us sleeping, waking just occasionally to chase patches of shade as the sun tracks westwards across the sky. Milky Bar is a great character, and his visits throughout lockdown always lifted our spirits.

Milky Bar: the most idle cat in existence

It would be banal to say that 2020 has been a year like no other, but clearly what’s happened in recent months was unimaginable as 2019 drew to a close. Mrs P and I have got off lightly. The virus has – so far, at least – passed us by, and as we’re retired and financially secure we’ve been spared the worries about the future that have afflicted so many working people. Instead we’ve spent our days here at home, comfortable and content.

It could have been so much worse and we’ll be forever grateful for our good fortune, and for life’s simple pleasures.

* * *

Postscript: for all you CAT-LOVERS out there, here are links to other posts featuring Milky Bar:

Hair today, gone tomorrow: bouncing back from lockdown

First the good news: after a wait of over five months, Mrs P has at last had a proper haircut. My wonderful missus likes to wear her hair short, in a simple elfin style. The closure of hair salons during lockdown therefore made her miserable, as her locks edged inexorably towards her shoulders. A state of emergency was duly declared, and the Platypus Man was called upon to wield a pair of scissors. I think it’s safe to say I have not found a new career.

photo of saloon interior view

PHOTO CREDIT: Guilherme Petri via Unsplash

The government finally allowed hair salons in England to re-open on 4 July, but when she contacted her hairdresser Mrs P was dismayed to learn that other members of the sisterhood had beaten her to it. It seems that women-folk right across our neighbourhood had been suffering similar torments, but they’d been quicker off the mark in booking appointments. Five anguished weeks followed before, at last, hairdresser Sue was able to fit her in.

Returning from her appointment, Mrs P bounced into the house like a new woman. The measures the salon had put in place to protect clients and customers from coronavirus had been thorough but not onerous, enabling my good lady to relax while Sue got down to business.

And down to business Sue did indeed get, snipping, clipping and primping merrily until order was restored to my wife’s rampant mane. Both literally and figuratively, a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: Mrs P’s got her mojo back. She looks great.

But now for the bad news: my good lady has declared that I too must have a haircut. I generally avoid male barbers like the plague, being pathologically incapable of holding up my end in random banal conversations about soccer, cars or superhero movies. Instead, I let Sue sort out my hair as and when necessary. However, it’s been more than six months since I last sat in her chair of shame, and I’m enjoying a new sense of freedom.

man in blue and white shirt wearing black framed eyeglasses

PHOTO CREDIT: Mostafa Meraji via Unsplash

You see, male pattern baldness is embedded in my genes, and has been making its presence known for two or three decades. I’ve not got much hair left now, and I cherish every last strand that has remained faithful to me.

Moreover, I’m a child of the sixties and look back lovingly to my hippy past. OK, I wasn’t a real hippy, but I admired their hedonistic lifestyle and carefree attitude to the cultural norms of their parents. To celebrate their values, in my university years I allowed my hair to grow until it brushed my shoulders, long, thick and luxuriant.

Ah, those were the days!

It’s occurred to me in recent months that the haircutting hiatus initiated by Covid-19 offers the ideal opportunity for a new beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, the chance to relive my glory years.

I therefore boldly suggested to Mrs P that lockdown is just the beginning, that now is the perfect moment for me to grow what’s left of my hair down to my shoulders again, and maybe even to have a ponytail. Her reply was short and to the point: it’s not going to happen, and if I don’t get it cut voluntarily she’ll do it herself when I’m asleep.

Huh!

So we’ve agreed on a compromise. Mrs P’s booked her next appointment with Sue for early November, and one for me 30 minutes later. Could be worse, I guess: at least I’ll have a couple more months to enjoy my rediscovered hirsute-ness.

And with any luck we’ll be in lockdown again by November, and hair salons will be closed until spring 2021. That should give me plenty of time to explore my inner hippy. Peace, man!

green peas peace sign

IMAGE CREDIT: Stoica Ionela via Unsplash

The truth is out there – just ask a librarian

There’s no shortage of information currently circulating about the causes of, and cures for, Covid-19. Trouble is, much of it is just plain wrong, being based on ridiculous conspiracy theories – for example, that 5G phone networks are to blame for spreading the virus – or profound ignorance. The latter is exemplified by the recent speculation that ingesting or injecting household disinfectant could cure the infection. Bloody hell, words fail me!

The crisis has only been around a few months, yet already Wikipedia offers a 16,000 word piece on “Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” So the burning question is, just who can you trust to point you in the right direction?

Personally, I would always trust a librarian to do just that. One way or another, I’ve spent most of my life in and around libraries. I always get a buzz of excitement in them. All human knowledge is available in, or accessible via, a properly run library. All you have to do is find it, and there’s no better way to do that than to ask the librarian.

Librarians are information professionals. It’s their job to help us find the information we need, accurate information from reliable sources. Many also have a wicked sense of humour. The image below was sent to Mrs P by one of her friends. Just read the book titles from top left to bottom right, and have a quiet chuckle at the creativity of one immensely knowledgeable librarian, albeit someone who maybe has too much time on his – or her – hands at the moment!

Libraries in the UK – and many other countries, I think – are struggling right now, so when the current crisis has passed why not pop into your local branch and check it out? You may be pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Meanwhile, you could try out the library’s digital offer. Various library services are available online these days, and could have been designed for lockdown living!

When Covid-19 gets personal

Every evening we watch the 10pm news on the BBC, pinned to our armchairs by the latest tidal wave of torment. The rising death toll, the shattered lives, the financial crisis, the lost jobs, the missed targets, the missing PPE. It keeps on coming, misery piled upon misery. But it’s so horrible that it somehow seems unreal, resembling a dark soap opera with a scarcely believable plot and actors who appear to be making it up as they go along.

Of course we’re not totally immune to the impact of the pandemic. Mrs P – who is particularly vulnerable due to her asthma – hasn’t left our property for six weeks, while I venture out only on Wednesdays to shop for us and her parents. The queues at the supermarket are getting me down, the shortage of flour has been frustrating, and wearing a mask makes my glasses steam up and leaves me stumbling around blindly. I’m always pleased to get back to the safety and calm of Platypus Towers.

However, these are minor irritations. Life goes on, and so do we. We are healthy, comfortable and keeping busy with all-manner of in-house projects and activities. Covid-19 is undoubtedly a curse, but it felt like we were just playing bit parts, walk-on roles in a disaster movie that’s being acted out all around us.

But then Covid-19 got personal.

Pat, my second cousin, who – with her son, Mark – is my only living blood-relative, phoned from London on Sunday morning with shock news. She and her husband, and Mark and his wife, have all been sick with Covid-19. Worst still, her father Tommy – my “uncle” Tom – also caught the virus, but it got the better of him.

Dad passed away yesterday morning, Pat explains sadly.

Tommy had seemed indestructible. We all knew that he couldn’t go on forever, but it wasn’t meant to end like this. It feels like he, and we, have been cheated by that wretched virus.

He would have been 100 years old next month, and to celebrate the milestone Mark was in the process of arranging a family party. Covid-19 has turned that dream, and a million others across the world, to ashes.

Although we weren’t exceptionally close, I have many fond memories of Tommy. His was the first car I ever rode in – my parents didn’t drive – and when I was small it was a special treat to escape London for a while on a Sunday afternoon drive into the countryside with Tommy and his wife Ivy.

Years later, when I was at university, he used his position with the Post Office to get me on the list for a job at the local sorting office in the run up to Christmas, giving me a welcome opportunity to earn some much needed beer money! These, and countless other kindnesses, whirl around in my mind as I write this. He was a good man.

*

Excellent although they are, the BBC news broadcasts can never get across the full horror of this virus. It seems to me that only when Covid-19 gets personal does it fully make the transition from disaster movie to a real-life, real-time tragedy.

Mrs P and I last saw Tommy in August, at Mark’s wedding. He was in good health, albeit a touch grumpy. But at his age a certain irascibility is inevitable and forgiveable, and also rather endearing. Sure as hell Pat, Mark and the rest of us would give anything to witness his grumpiness again.

Rest in Peace, Tommy.

Eyam: A 17th century experiment in self-isolation and social distancing

My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.

However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!

Eyam

PHOTO CREDIT: “Eyam” by jodastephen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.

The traditional narrative of the so-called Great Plague tells us that the disease was transmitted by bites from infected fleas of the Black Rat. However, modern scholars question this, and argue instead that the bacterial infection was spread by human body lice or, perhaps, human fleas. Contact with excrement from those exoparasites may also have contributed to transmission.

In summer 1665 a consignment of cloth was despatched from London was to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District, a journey north of around 160 miles taking perhaps 10 days. The cloth arrived damp, and tailor Alexander Hadfield instructed his assistant George Viccars to sort through and dry it. A few days later Viccars was the first Eyam resident to succumb to the plague, on 7 September 1665.

Recent studies suggest that in heat of summer human body lice and fleas could survive 10 days without feeding, particularly in the humidity of a damp bolt of cloth. Infected human parasites may therefore have passed on the plague to Viccars; alternatively he could have caught the disease from their excrement when sorting through the cloth. Either way, exposure to the bacteria was to prove fatal.

The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam and as time passed more villagers took ill and died, presumably via Viccars’ own body lice or fleas. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.

One of the “Plague Cottages” in use at the time of the epidemic

At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing and self-isolation – 1666 style – came to Eyam.

The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:

  • nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
  • food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
  • church services would be held outdoors
  • the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
  • families would bury their own dead

In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. Without any scientific understanding the plague’s modus operandi, Mompesson had stumbled across a way of containing it and probably saved countless lives in towns and villages surrounding Eyam.

By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.

At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.

The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.

A “Plague Grave,” dating from just before the closure of the churchyard

When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancé. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.

*

Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.

I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancé saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing and self-isolation.

Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.

I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?

This is not the time to party

A few days ago, the media reported on a “massive party” held in contravention of the UK’s emergency rules on social distancing, rules that have been introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m saddened to say that the party went down in Derby, just ten or so miles from Platypus Towers, although to be fair I guess it could have happened anywhere. Shortly afterwards there were reports of a pub holding a “lock-in” for regular drinkers at Sutton-in-Ashfield, also just a few miles from where I’m writing this, in flagrant disregard of the restrictions currently in place.

orange and white digital watch

IMAGE CREDIT: Glen Carrie via Unsplash

While most of us are adapting to the current restrictions, a few of our fellows seem to feel that they’re being unfairly treated. They appear to believe that they’ve been singled out for what the Americans might call cruel and unusual punishment, and that they are therefore justified in continuing to do their own thing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Their actions are making a clear statement: “these rules, these restrictions on personal liberty, don’t apply to us.”

*

When you’re in the midst of a crisis there’s a natural tendency to assume that your misery is unique, that no-one’s ever had it quite so bad before. But it ain’t necessarily so. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in human history, nor, I’m certain, will it be the last. This should come as no surprise – after all, it is in the nature of bugs to mutate, just as it’s in the nature of our immune systems to adapt to those mutations. That battle is set to continue until the end of time.

The so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918/19 was by far the worst pandemic of the last century. It’s estimated that around 500 million people caught it, which amounted to about a third of the world’s population at that time. The death rate was huge:

The number of deaths [from Spanish flu] was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Source: Website of the CDC (The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Meanwhile, at the time of writing (10am, 4 April 2020) Worldometer reports 1.1 million cases COVID-19 worldwide, and 59,247 deaths out of world population of 7.7 billion. Plainly, during an ongoing crisis any such numbers must be treated with a huge amount of caution; however the contrast between Spanish flu and COVID-19 is stark.

In quoting these figures I’m not seeking to minimise the current crisis, nor to underestimate the suffering of those affected, their families and wider communities. And it’s also plain that while Spanish flu is history, COVID-19 exists in the here and now: nobody knows when it will end, or just how the numbers will stack up when it does. However, the evidence is that humanity has been through something similar before, and had to find ways of coping. Maybe we can learn from history?

*

I’ve been vaguely aware of Spanish flu for as long as I can remember. As a student of history it’s one of those things I just picked up along the way. But not for its own sake: rather, it was merely a sad footnote to the history of World War 1, the ironically dubbed war to end all wars. It never occurred to me to look beyond the numbers, to question how society a century ago tried to cope with a rampant epidemic.

Trawling the Internet today I’m not surprised to learn that, here in the UK, we coped badly. Medical science was in its infancy and the disease was poorly understood. In any case the National Health Service did not exist, meaning that a co-ordinated strategy for dealing with the pandemic was impossible.

Moreover, the State had minimal ability to influence and control societal behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, before he himself went down with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television and ordered citizens to stay in their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse such as shopping for basic necessities, seeking or providing medical assistance, taking exercise (alone, or with other members of the household only), or travelling to or from work (but only when it is impossible to work from home).

It is inconceivable that, in 1918/19, Prime Minister Lloyd George could have envisaged such draconian measures – government’s willingness to reach into the day-to-day lives of its citizens was much more constrained a century ago. Communicating the need for “social distancing” would in any case have been fraught with difficulty without the broadcast media, Internet, and mobile phone technology that we take for granted today. And even had such restrictions been successfully communicated, enforcing them would have been all but impossible.

As the Spanish flu crisis deepened, responses to it were locally devised rather than nationally prescribed, and as a result were patchy. For example

In Rotherham, posters were displayed in prominent parts of the town, and health visitors and school nurses distributed leaflets from door to door, encouraging people to keep dirty handkerchiefs out of the reach of children. The Borough of Hackney recommended that victims stay isolated, go to bed the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash and salt. In Keswick, Cumbria, the Medical Officer arranged for a free supply of “disinfectant mixture”. Every morning, formalin was sprinkled on the floor of Brighton’s public library and post office, and tramcars were fumigated in Doncaster.

Source: History Extra website. Retrieved 4 April 2020

Attempts at social distancing were at best half-hearted. At the height of the outbreak hundreds of elementary schools were closed, but only when staff absenteesim forced the issue. Secondary schools remained open throughout, and church services proceeded as usual. Factories continued to operate, and there was no ban on entertainments and public gatherings.

In short, there was no “lockdown,” as we now understand it, in the UK’s response to Spanish flu in 1918/19. Individuals, families and communities struggled on as best they could. The vast majority got through it, though it must have been a traumatic experience.

However, around 228,000 British citizens died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic. And I’m sure that every last one of them would have put up with the temporary inconveniences caused by 2020-style social distancing, if they had believed doing so would give them – and their families, friends and neighbours – a better chance of survival.

If they’d been offered a simple trade, a lockdown or a life, they would have chosen life. Sadly they didn’t have that choice. We do.

*

Generally speaking I’ve been impressed by the way people have adapted to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting one another, putting differences aside and doing the right thing. But, as my opening paragraph illustrated, there are still some moaners, some selfish individuals who feel their right to party supersedes society’s short-term need for social distancing.

I get it, I really do. What we’re being asked to do is contrary to our custom and practice as citizens of a proud, free democracy. Moreover humans are primates, social animals. We’re hardwired for social interaction, not social distancing.

But now is not the time to stand on principle, to play at politics or to throw our toys out of the pram. Together, we need to hold our nerve, to do the right thing by our families, friends and neighbours, and to trust that our scientists and medical professionals will help us find a way through the crisis.

There will be time enough to party when all this is over.