When Covid broke out in China, one of the policies in some cities was to round up and kill people’s cats, due to a worry that they can carry coronaviruses. Subsequent protests have meant this policy has always been dropped, but only to reappear at various times. In early 2022, officials in the city of Langfangs ordered the killing of all pets of anyone infected with Covid. Again, the policy was dropped after protests (Daily Mail, 2022). Echoing some of that attitude towards pets, yesterday (November 22nd) the Daily Express newspaper ran a story about the UK, with the headline: “Covid horror as estimated over 350,000 cats infected with virus which ‘can be fatal’”. The story itself was about evidence of past non-fatal infections of cats with Covid in Britain. It also mentioned that other forms of coronavirus can be fatal to cats. The story provoked comments such as: “cull all cats” (Daily Express, 2022). The same story soon appeared in other UK newspapers and websites.
When I read this news, I thought it might be helpful to revisit some of the history I remember from school, about something called the ‘Black Death’. After all, if history rhymes throughout time, those rhymes might be telling us something about both our psyches and our societies. The Black Death refers to a serious episode of the bubonic plague, which was a terrifying disease affecting many parts of North Africa, Western Eurasia and Europe for hundreds of years, beginning in the 14th century. It was named after the ‘buboes’, which were large painful swellings in the lymph nodes of the armpits, groin and neck. You may have noticed that I just used the past tense, as I thought the disease had died out. But a quick search led me to discover it still exists today, though thankfully under control. But hundreds of years ago it was terrifying, because there was no treatment, while the pain was awful, and it killed people so quickly. Plague sufferers had a 30% chance of dying within two weeks during the last major outbreak in the UK in 1665. That was when a third of all the inhabitants of London died in a year, according to estimates.
Since the late 1800s we have known how this plague is transmitted: a flea feeds on a rodent and consumes the deadly bacteria, so when it feeds on another host, either rodent or human, that bacteria infects the new host. However, back in the 17th century the main theory for how the disease was spread was that it came from bad smells call miasma. Yes, major cities like London ‘stank to high heaven’ all the time, so the idea that bad smells were the cause of disease might not have seemed logical to everyone at the time. They also knew it came in on the ships from abroad, which weren’t particularly smelly either. But nevertheless, the miasma theory of the plague appealed to those people who had power. They could wash more and use nice smelling herbs and flowers, compared to poorer people. Also, their dwellings were less crowded and not close to large populations, so had less waste around to cause the bad smells. Believing such odours were the cause of disease also helped them have less empathy and solidarity with the people who weren’t as rich as them. Instead, they could denigrate the poor as the source of infection (Champion, 1995).
A single case was reported in April 1665 in Convent Garden, with 2 more cases the following week. An order from the Crown came that any household where someone had the plague should be locked up so no one could enter or leave for 40 days. A watchman was paid to stand guard outside. This frequently led to the deaths of the other inhabitants in the household, by neglect if not from the plague. Clearly, that provided a great incentive not to report the disease. Perhaps less incentive than in those towns where the policy was to evacuate the infected to Pest Houses outside the city. Initially there was resistance to this lockdown policy, with a protest on 28th April 1665 leading to the inhabitants being forcibly freed from their household (National Archives, 2022).
That protest was discussed in parliament. Historians reading all the documents from the time conclude that the authorities were mostly concerned with public order not public health (Champion, 1995). Perhaps this instance of civil disobedience made the Authorities decide to act with further authoritarian measures. The Corporation of the City of London was in charge of the city at the time. Citing the theory that bad smells were to blame for the spread of the disease, they ordered a cull of all dogs and cats (Moote and Moote, 2004). They would have known that cats and dogs have always smelled of cats and dogs, during the periods of no plague. But forcibly killing family pets would show the authorities were serious about the disease. No pain, no gain. Being the City Corporation, they had the money to make their policy a reality, and paid tuppence a corpse. Daniel Defoe (1772), in book called the Journal of The Plague Year, estimated that about 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were killed in London. You may have guessed already what an ill-fated measure that was. It ensured that the rat populations could explode, and therefore the fleas on them, which transmitted the plague would also explode in number. At the time some observers even noticed the effect of this policy, writing about the increased number and vigour of live mice and rats during plague time, and surmised it was probably the result of the culling of cats.
Within a few weeks, with the summer heat adding to the spread, deaths per week had climbed into the thousands. By that time, a third of the population of the city had fled. As there was hardly any work to be had, suddenly grave digging and enforcing the rules, such as being a Watchman, became a key source of income. Imprisonment households was extended in a way to the city at large, as ordinary residents were not allowed to leave the city without a certificate of good health. Something that was only provided by the Lord Mayor himself and therefore almost impossible to obtain by the poor. Given that the rich considered the smelly masses to be the source of the disease, as well as their pets, this restriction on movement made perfect sense to them in their rural retreats. Meanwhile, the death toll in the city climbed to a peak in September, when 7,165 Londoners died in one week.
Might the situation have been different without the pet cull? In Bristol the following year the plague arrived and only killed less than 1 percent of the population (Bristol Record Society, 2022). There was no pet cull. But by then perhaps the strain of the disease had become less infectious or virulent. There could be some interesting studies done into the policies, bacteria strains, and suchlike, to gain further insight into why London suffered particularly badly compared to the rest of the UK. The possibility remains that no action by the government of the time might even have led to less death, not more. That is a conclusion that the modern historians I have read on the history of the plague have been unwilling to venture. That might just reflect the culture we live within today, widely described by sociologists as ‘managerialist’ deference to hierarchy and supervision (Klikauer, 2019).
From the plague to Covid, what aspects of history might be rhyming today? As with the Great Plague of London, the authorities certainly wanted something to be seen to be done about Covid. Their internal reports even said as much, with an emphasis on how to signal the seriousness of concern to the general public. As with the Great Plague, they chose to impose on people rather than work with us. For instance, employers and workers were not supported so that a worker could stay at home immediately at the first sign of any symptoms (tested or not) without losing pay, trust, or employment (Bendell, 2021). If there was less inequality, the authorities would not be so distant from the working class. Without being so disconnected, might their first focus been on empowering staff to make wise choices about personal and public health? As with the Great Plague, many governments chose to contain people into small units, describing it with friendly words like ‘bubble’ and then paying people to conform through government handouts (with the largest handouts going to the already wealthy). As with the Great Plague, many of the leaders flouted their own rules and escaped to the country. Meanwhile, many people experienced the pain of their Covid policies, by losing their livelihoods, social lives, and not being able to see dying relatives. Could such pain have implied to people that the authorities were ‘at least’ dealing with the health crisis ‘seriously’? Sadly, the impacts of their policies are still unfolding, due to the damage done to economies and government finances.
Luckily most cats escaped, at least for now. But history’s sinister rhyme of scape
goatingcating remains. It seems the desire for a blood sacrifice runs deeper than we in modern societies wish to recognise. Perhaps the continual return of a non-sensical policy can only be understood by recognising some people’s irrational but deep-seated anger at the natural world for the disruptions and insecurity they experience. Because pets are the closest connection most of us have to the more-than-human world. Destroying them and rejecting a loving connection with wider Life, is a form of punishment that can be imagined by panicked minds. And panic from our authorities is exactly the issue to be aware of, with extensive social psychology on this hard-to-kick habit of elites. It examines how, oftentimes, when leaders realise that the systems they administer are threatened, they respond with draconian decisions that make matters worse. For instance, brutal approaches to law and order in the wake of natural disasters are a typical form of ‘elite panic’ (Clarke and Chess, 2008).
These horror rhymes of history tell us much more than what might be happening with public health crises, both now and in future. They demonstrate the likelihood of national and global systems of imperial power reacting to disruptions in ways that make matters worse. As societies become disrupted and unstable, it’s always the same: the Empire strikes back. Our adaptations to an era that will be typified by more disruptions must factor that reaction in. It means we should build our networks of resistance to unscientific, self-serving, and counterproductive policies from the elites and the people in their pay, or who seek their praise.
This is an un-edited excerpt from the book Breaking Together, forthcoming in 2023. To be alerted to when it is published, subscribe to my personal newsletter (I send an update twice a year, maximum).
Bendell, J. (2021) It’s time for more of a citizen’s response to the pandemic, October 23rd, https://jembendell.com/2021/10/23/its-time-for-more-of-a-citizens-response-to-the-pandemic-for-a-real-planb/
Bristol Record Society (2022), “Documents Relating to the Great Plague of 1665-1666 in Bristol”. Archive.org. Bristol Record Society. Accessed November 2022.
Champion, J A I (1995), London’s dreaded visitation: the social geography of the Great Plague in 1665, Historical Geography Research Series No. 31, University of Edinburgh, 1995, pp. xiv, 124
Clarke, L and Chess, C. (2008) “Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself”. Social Forces. 87 (2): 993–1014. doi:10.1353/sof.0.0155. JSTOR 20430900. S2CID 143112263.
Defoe, D. (1772) Journal Of The Plague Year. A Journal of the Plague Year at Wikisource, the free online library. Accessed November 2022.
Klikauer, T. A preliminary theory of managerialism as an ideology. J Theory Soc Behav. 2019; 49: 421- 442. https://doi.org/10.1111/jtsb.12220
Juniper Communications. The Great Plague (Black Death Documentary) | Timeline, Juniper Communications LTD.
Moote, A L and D C Moote (2004) The great plague: the story of London’s most deadly year, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, p. 115. (pp. xxi, 357)
National Archives (2022), The Great Plague – source 3b – The National Archives. Accessed November 2022.