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City Matters 119

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CITYMATTERS.LONDON 18 - 31 March 2020 | Page 21 RESIDENT OPINION subscribe to our newsletter at I’VE noticed that people have recently started drawing historical parallels between coronavirus and the many previous times when London has been struck by outbreaks of contagious disease, writes Ian McPherson. Specifically, memes relating to the bubonic plague seem to proliferate on social media any time people are discussing coronavirus and COVID-19. As a City Guide with a particular interest in the 17th century, I consider myself to know a thing or two about the history of plague, and I don’t think drawing such parallels is very helpful. Whilst we are undeniably facing the biggest global health crisis in a generation, coronavirus most certainly isn’t the plague. The outlook is nowhere near as bleak or frightening as it was back in 1665, when the Great Plague of London killed seven out of every 10 people it infected. A bit of perspective is perhaps in order, folks. However, there are certainly some unpleasant historical similarities, chiefly around the suspicion of ‘otherness’ and the rise of xenophobia when frightened people are faced with contagious disease. I witnessed my first coronavirus hate crime the other day on the concourse of Liverpool Street station. Somebody loudly passed a derogatory comment about a man of East Asian appearance who was wearing a facemask. The slighted man responded assertively, shouting at the perpetrator that he was a racist and for a minute it looked like the situation would escalate until a security guard from one of the concourse shops noticed what was happening and ran over to intervene. As paranoia about the coronavirus HISTORY REPEATING increases, the media have reported that people of East Asian heritage, both here in Britain and overseas, have been subjected to an increasing amount of xenophobic and racist abuse. This is a case of history repeating itself. During the Black Death of the 1340s, Europe’s Jews, who were no strangers to prejudicial treatment, experienced a marked spike in anti-Semitic attacks. They were frequently accused of causing plague by poisoning wells and there are numerous reports of Jews being dragged from their homes by mobs and murdered. The City’s small Jewish community, based around their Aldgate synagogue in Creechurch Lane, was not subjected to anything like this level of sectarian persecution during the Great Plague of 1665. Nevertheless, they remained under suspicion. Many with fundamentalist Christian views argued that the Great Plague was a divine punishment for London’s newly found tolerance of the Jews. Others at the time similarly blamed the pestilence on non-conformists, Sabbathbreakers, prostitutes, Roman Catholics, and the poor. The Dutch, whom England was at war with at the time, also fell under suspicion. People became openly hostile to anyone different to themselves. So, depressingly, it appears that there are indeed parallels in the human response to epidemics of disease; suspicion, paranoia and the need to identify and blame an ‘other’. Arguably, rather than circulating plague memes on Twitter it would be much more helpful for people to try to connect the present to the past as a way to further understand the ways in which racism plays out. Contact us for all your last minute printing orders letterpress lithographic digital SOCIAL ENTERPRISE PRINTING Ltd Traditional Printing with a Social Value 12 Pinchin St, London E1 1SA [email protected] 020 7488 9800

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