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Ring a ring Roses: We all fall down

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | April 4, 2020

Some nursery rhymes capture a moment in history. The “ring a roses” refers to the apple sized swellings, filled with blood and pus, characteristic of the ‘Black Death.’ Death could occur in hours: “We all fall down.” In a series of pandemics, the Black Death killed half the population of Europe.

As an octogenarian who might not survive Covid-19 if I become infected, I am grateful for the science-based restrictions that Governor Newson has placed on all of us. Of course, some aspects seem tiresome, but if I feel sorry myself then I take myself back to Eyam, a place I have visited several times. It is a quintessential English Village in the middle of Derbyshire, 160 miles north of London. It has a charming church, a friendly public house, and well manicured flower gardens. But Eyam has something extra. Many of the houses have a little plaques spelling out the names of someone who died in 1666.

The Black Death was spread by rat fleas. In 1666, the tailor in Eyam received a bundle of cloth from London carrying fleas infected with the lethal bacterium called Yersinia pestis.. Within a few days several people died of the plague.

The villages turned for help to the vicar, the Rev Mompresson, and to Thomas Stanley, a Puritan. They had been at loggerheads over theological minutiae, but they came together with a bold policy: quarantine the whole village. No one was to leave. Church service had to be held in the open with people standing well apart from one another – sound familiar? Neighboring villagers placed food on a large rock and Eyam villagers left coins washed in vinegar – not quite as good as today’s alcohol wipes – but it seemed to do the job. No other village in the county of Derbyshire had a single death.

We worry about how long the current restrictions will last. Eyam had to endure 14 months quarantine, and for much of that time people went on dying. The village paid a terrible price for the self-imposed quarantine. Only 83 people out the pre-plague population of 350 survived those 14 months of horror. The saddest plaque outside a house refers to Elizabeth Hancock, who saw her husband and six children die in eight days.

The people who put their lives at risk to save others, over three centuries ago, were illiterate farmers. They had no central heating, no running water, no phones, and no microwaves to make life easier.

I think, I am going to stop feeling sorry for myself.

Comment to “Ring a ring Roses: We all fall down

  1. Thank you Prof. Potts. As a fellow octogenarian I fully appreciate the perspective you have provided in your post because there has never been any doubt that a pandemic like coronavirus can happen again, it has only been a question of when. A paramount question thus becomes, can we adapt in time?

    Along this line, Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson concluded that far-off catastrophes, engineered by our own species, are simply out of the range of human capacity for planning and action. “It doesn’t matter that that evolutionary process may be leading an entire species to the precipice,” he said. “There is nothing in the species to foresee what will be happening ten generations down the line, only what is happening at the moment.” Human beings, he added, “have a hard time reasoning why they should care what might come about 100 years hence.” This conclusion was quoted in a 2006 “Global Warning” special issue of CALIFORNIA Magazine with cover story question “Can We Adapt in Time,” a warning we have most obviously failed to act upon, at our increasing peril.

    As for people of our age, I have come to discover that it is most imperative that we recognize that long-term stress can damage our hippocampus because research suggests that people with anxious personalities are at greater memory impairment and dementia. Actually, it is a fact of life that is most important to realize and protect ourselves from at any age in an era of over population, Us/Them dichotomies that result in out of control social, political and economic instabilities and inequalities, uncertainties of technical changes along with global warming and new diseases, etc.

    The inescapable fact of life is that you and I have benefited from the greatest legacy in history, produced by the Greatest Generation and we haven’t found ways to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations, such as that of our grandchildren.

    Indeed, can we adapt in time to avoid yet another, possibly final, Ring a ring Roses: We all fall down?

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