What can we learn from the Black Death? Be prepared, trust entrepreneurs, and have faith
Can we learn from history?
An excellent book by Ben Gummer on the Black Death in fourteenth century Britain, The Scourging Angel, shows that we can.
Published 10 years ago, the book offers many intriguing parallels with the Covid-19 crisis.
Of course, the Black Death was almost incomprehensibly more lethal. Around 50 per cent of the total UK population died in 1348–49. That is 33m deaths in current terms.
Modern scholarship has overturned the long-held idea that the plague was spread exclusively by fleas on rats. Contemporaries knew that it was spread from person to person by breath. The new coronavirus is transmitted by droplets from the nose and mouth. Both diseases lingered on clothing and objects.
People back then worked out very quickly how plague might be avoided. Those who could fled from infected areas. If possible, they locked themselves away in castles or monasteries.
The peasantry — the vast bulk of the population — had far fewer options. But they did try to cut off contact with the world outside their own immediate village as much as possible.
Then, as now, there were inequalities in health outcomes. Because of their greater ability to practise social distancing, the nobles and church leaders had much lower death rates. Even so, these were still some 20 per cent.
There were arguments over the Medieval equivalent of PPE. In London, the demand for gloves rose dramatically. Master glove makers enticed away their rivals’ employees. Unlicensed glove production, often of dubious quality, soared. The city fathers had to step in and enforce the regulations more effectively.
On a lighter if macabre note, a “William of Liverpool” was convicted of a different scam. A neighbouring village had no burial ground. For a substantial fee, he agreed to take the bodies and bury them on what he claimed were his extensive fields. Essentially, he then fly-tipped the corpses on his way home.
Then there is the economy. The current chancellor has had to be very innovative with his schemes to preserve jobs. The Black Death created the opposite problem: a massive shortage of labour.
But an equally innovative and imaginative solution was found. Maximum wage rates were fixed by legislation. The local nobility and gentry were given an incentive to enforce it: any fines collected from workers paid more than was legal could be offset against the overall amount of tax due from the county.
Two positive themes emerge towards the end of the book.
First, the authorities then took steps to try to mitigate the impact of any second wave of the plague almost as soon as the first had passed. The streets of London, for example, unimaginably filthy to modern eyes, were kept cleaner.
Here is a key lesson for Covid-19. If a new wave arrives in the winter, there is no excuse if the government is not prepared. The time to start is now.
The second point is that economic activity recovered remarkably quickly. London in particular was soon buzzing again. It was not state action which delivered this — it was confidence on the part of both entrepreneurs and consumers.
Now, as then, confidence is the key to recovery.