It is estimated that, in 1348, the Black Death claimed between 20% and 60% of the population of England. If it is assumed that there was a population of 6 million people, such a mortality rate would suggest that between 1.2 million and 3.6 million people died.
Plague continued to be a threat to life in England for centuries. In London in 1603, 33,347 deaths were attributed to the plague. In the six decades between 1603 and 1665, there were only four years when plague was not recorded as a cause of death; 1625 saw 41,313 dead. The worst year came in 1665, official records showed 68,596 deaths in London, the actual total is thought to have exceeded 100,000. In England as a whole, the plague is believed to have claimed the lives of 200,000 people in a population of 5.25 million (it had still not returned to the level it had reached three hundred years previously).
In more recent times, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19 caused 228,000 deaths in Britain. Occasional pandemics of influenza have continued to appear, claiming the lives of tens of thousands. The winter of 2017-18 was the worst in more than forty years. The Office of National Statistics believe that the 50,000 “excess winter deaths” were chiefly attributable to the predominant strain of influenza.
In an historical context, the likely number of Covid-19 deaths will not appear large. Without the restrictive measures imposed, it might have become as devastating as the Spanish Flu. The government’s initial option, the acquisition of “herd immunity” could have brought 250,000 deaths. The present policy of lockdown is thought likely to keep the death toll at a figure of around 20,000. Historical statistics may show Covid-19 as having caused no more fatalities than a typical winter flu, but they will not show what might have been.
If the capacity to keep down the number of deaths is within the grasp of ordinary people, what then is the problem? Why are government spokespeople and the BBC constantly repeating the message that distancing and isolation are the only options?
People seem to have lost the capacity to be patient. If people stay in their own homes and pass the days, there is little danger. It is not a war situation where there is a threat of being bombed or invaded, it is not a situation that necessarily brings danger.
Perhaps there is a mood of individualism, or of consumerism, that says that people have a right to do and to have what they want when they want it. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there is no such thing as society is being proven by those who assert that their own personal rights are paramount. Perhaps it is simply that waiting is not popular.
The prime minister’s original declaration is that the crisis could last twelve weeks. Two weeks have passed, there are perhaps ten to go. Ten weeks sitting quietly is not a great burden compared to the burdens faced by those of former times.