The extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice of the villagers of Eyam, near Manchester, probably averted the plague in northern England in 1665.
The Black Death killed a quarter of the population of London – 100,000 people – from 1664, being ended only by the destruction of the Great Fire of London in 1666. But when flea-infested cloth from London reached a tailor in Eyam in 1665, plague struck in the north.
The villagers, under the leadership of the Anglican rector William Mompesson, chose to self-isolate to stop the terror spreading, knowing what it would mean for their own lives.
They made a pact with each other and with God that no one would leave.
They made a pact with each other and with God that no one would leave. They made boundary stones around the village, boring holes into the rock into which they put vinegar-soaked coins to pay for food and goods from surrounding villages. No one fled; they accepted a potentially frightful fate. And they were right, for 267 died from a population of 344.
Twenty-first century Australia, facing the apparent plague of coronavirus, seems to offer nothing like the heroism and self-sacrifice of the villagers of Eyam. The panic-buying emptying the shelves of supermarkets sends precisely the opposite message. It’s the ultimate in selfishness: I don’t care who misses out so long as I and my family feel safe.
Australia may be a Commonwealth, but the idea of a common wealth on which that claim is founded has diminished over recent decades – the idea that we are jointly engaged in nation-building, that civic pride builds a better future for everybody, that sacrifices today will benefit all tomorrow. This understanding, much evident in the behaviour of many of the early settlers, is comparatively rare today, though it still exists.
But there is something odd about human nature: the worse the crisis, the better we behave.
But there is something odd about human nature: the worse the crisis, the better we behave. For those who lived through it, World War II provided an obvious example, with Australians sharing a national consciousness and “doing their bit”, whether fighting, nursing, keeping the home fires burning, and scrimping for the war effort.
So far, we haven’t seen the best of Australians over the coronavirus – panic from the financial markets to the supermarkets. But I have faith that the more we observe the reality of what’s happening – as people get hospitalised, as we have to adjust our way of life, as people fall into financial trouble and lose jobs – the best in us will emerge.
There will be far more team spirit, far more looking out for our neighbours, far more willingness to accept inconvenience, and to forgo comforts to ensure that others don’t go without. War brings out the best (and worst) in people. In 2020, it is as though we are at war, even if the enemy is invisible.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.