Sat. Apr 4th, 2020

“I saw people collapse dead on the street”



Pamphleteer, spy, journalist, writer, occasional inmate, self-impersonator. A lifetime of time. For some he is the father of the modern novel, for others he is the founder of the Economic Press, although for most he is only the author of “Robinson Crusoe”. But, above those considerations, Daniel Defoe was a carved by circumstances who knew how to break through taking advantage of opportunities. Baptized in the baptismal font as Foe, the writer added a “de” to his last name to claim some noble roots that he lacked (his father was a butcher and traded in candle grease). In 1720, as had happened three hundred years earlier, the plague arrived at the port of Marseille. The bubonic infection defied reason and medicine in the Age of Enlightenment And he saw the right juncture to publish “Diary of the plague year”, a compendium of the testimonies of the 1665 outbreak that he knew when he was barely five years old and that now reissues Impedimenta with a foreword by José C. Vales. The possibility gave him an opportunity to spread recommendations among the population, and, incidentally, earn a pinch of money. The work collects what happened during those days, enlivened by anecdotes that make the yellow press press prelude, and a series of similar situations that remind us of this Europe of the coronavirus. There are confinements, “Fake News”, false remedies, contagion through cities, road and public road closures, and warnings and recommendations so that no crowds form. “It was a very bad time to be sick,” he says, “because if you complained, they immediately said you had the plague; and although I did not have any of the symptoms of this disease, although I was very ill both in the head and in the stomach, I had a certain apprehension of being actually infected ».

Odors and pestilences

The landscape he describes of the cities is now familiar: «It was surprising to see those streets, usually crowded with people, so empty». He comments on how pedestrians walked through the “center to avoid getting smells or pestilences” and that the shops, inns, inns and public places remain closed to avoid the spread. Even factories are evicted to prevent the disease from spreading. “The representation of all the comedies and hors d’oeuvres that had been staged was banned,” recalls Defoe. The writer emphasizes, also, that they closed «and suppressed gaming tables, public dance halls and music halls (…). And the buffoons, clowns, puppet shows, flyers and similar attractions that bewitched the poor common people, had to close their fairs by not prospering their businesses.

An environment conducive to fanning rumors and spreading fears. The prevailing atmosphere is that of fear. Along with the unscrupulous who spurred and gave wings to the worst catastrophes were the old women who predicted debacles or interpreted dreams (almost always for the worse), and visionaries who “filled the heads of the people with predictions about signs from heaven.” These events forced the Government to suspend the printing of those books that encouraged fear and persecuted intimidators and other cyclones of horror.

Defoe dedicates pages to the work of doctors. Many of them fell infected. He commends the work of these doctors who “went everywhere prescribing to others what they had to do until the symptoms appeared on them and they fell dead, destroyed by the same enemy against whom they advised.” And he adds: «It is commendable that they risked their lives to the point of losing them in the service of humanity. They strove to do good and save the lives of others. Defoe recounts the authorities’ effort to prevent the spread, to watch over the needy, to take care of the provisions of the stores, which dispatched food, to watch that the taverns remained closed, to prevent the rental of coachmen, to prohibit the movement of people to other places and ensure the confinement of the population in their homes. Some measures that did not prevent the obvious: the ravages of the disease. «My eyes contemplated frightful scenes, like people who collapsed dead in the streets, terrible voices and screams of women who, in their agony, opened wide the windows of the rooms and emitted high-pitched, gloomy and overwhelming screams. It would be impossible to describe the diversity of attitudes in which the passions of the poor people were manifested ». Or when he adds: «People threw themselves out of the windows, firearms were fired. The mothers, in their frenzy, murdered their own children and others died of grief.

The plague stirred the imagination of the soulless. A court of scammers trying to deceive and “lighten the pockets” of the people. People ran “after the healers and charlatans and old soup-makers in search of medicines and remedies, gorging themselves on such a quantity of pills, potions and condoms, that was what they were called, that they not only spent their money but also poisoned themselves with in advance for fear of the poison of the plague ».

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