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While studies suggest bats or pangolins could be the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t know with certainty how the outbreak began. Often months or even years can go by without a definitive answer presenting itself. However, in the case of another, now-distant pandemic of the 17th century — in a village called Eyam — it all started with a cloth.
It was the summer of 1665 when a clueless London merchant sent flea-infested fabrics to the tailor of Eyam: Alexander Hadfield. These fleas weren't alone in their voyage to the village — they were carrying bacteria that would cruelly destroy and take the lives of many, now known as the Bubonic Plague.
By the 1660s, the plague had reached the heart of England in the latest of many waves. It was a centuries-long pandemic that swept through the world and killed millions, sparing few. By the late 17th century, 25% of London’s population had perished, with earlier outbreaks sending an estimated 25 million people to their graves.
SEE ALSO: THE 1918 SPANISH FLU AND WHAT IT COST HUMANITY: A TIMELINE
Eyam's first plague victim
George Viccars was the first to contract the illness. As the village tailor’s assistant, he was believed to have hung the newly-arrived clothes out to dry over the hearth. Thriving in warm weather, the fleas carried the plague to the poor assistant tailor. He would become the first victim of the plague in Eyam, dying in unbearable agony on September 7, 1665.
After Viccars’ death, the pestilence ravaged his community, and before the new year’s arrival, 42 villagers would join him in death. There was, however, a brief intermission where the rate of infections dropped. But as summer blossomed, things took a turn for the worse. Not only did the plague make a blistering return; it mutated and became pneumonic — which meant that humans could now transmit it to one another directly, instead of being infected by fleas alone.
Death waves wreak chaos in England
This resulted in a tremendous surge in deaths. Panic ensued, and many of Eyam’s residents were convinced that escape to larger cities was the only hope left.
Historically, we now know that this likely caused tremendous damage, resulting in thousands of fatalities. The people of England had a vague idea of what should be done thanks to the many the nascent (but rapidly advancing) science of medicine, and — surprisingly — the newly appointed rector William Mompesson was a man ahead of his time.
Mompesson suspected that Eyam’s fleeing villagers might spread the outbreaks in larger cities. As a man of religion, he thought the rightful course of action was to self-quarantine the town.
Together with the former rector Thomas Stanley, the two men persuaded the villagers into staying. No one would enter or leave the village of Eyam. In the end, the people chose sacrifice and death.
People self-quarantined in the 'Cordon Sanitaire'
On June 24, 1666, the people of Eyam voluntarily quarantined themselves with a “cordon sanitaire.” Rocks were placed in a 1-mile-long circle around Eyam to create perimeter; this would be their isolation zone. Many would never pass the stones again.
Nearby villages sold them food and supplies by the rocks in exchange for “disinfected” coins. The villagers would soak the coins in vinegar, and this practice was believed to prevent the plague from spreading.
This boundary stone was left behind as a symbol of sacrifice and decisiveness after the circle was removed many years later. It marks the eventual freedom for the people who survived the plague of Eyam.
The six holes in the stone were once filled with coins left by the villagers, to be sanitized in vinegar.
Black Death ran its course: 260 people dead
At the start of the plague, Eyam had 350 people in self-quarantine. By the summer's end, 260 people had died.
More than 76 separate families were affected during the quarantine. Historical records show entire families dying, one after another. In August 1666 — with the plague at its peak — five to six people would die per day, in Eyam.
Elizabeth Hancock — an Eyam plague survivor — told the story of how she buried six of her children and her husband one after another, eight days in a row. She had to drag their bodies across the fields and bury them while people from the nearby villages stood on the hills and just watched her. They were too scared to help.
Astonishingly, despite the dire reality, no one broke the cordon.
A Poignant Tale of Sacrifice
The last infection occurred on October 17, 1666. After the summer's end, the worst of the pestilence would cease. The number of cases fell in September, and by the start of November, the disease was gone. With further transmission prevented, the "cordon" had worked.
Today, Eyam has a current population of roughly 1,000. It hasn’t grown much grown larger since then; however, the town's self-sacrifice has become a grim but effective reminder that humanity can persist even through the most frightening and hopeless of circumstances.
If we are to look at our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are doing much better by the ratio of fatalities to cases. Moreover, we're better-equipped with the power of a more advanced medicinal science.
Thankfully, we don't have to sacrifice our lives for the greater good, but giving up the time we spend outside is a must to protect those in need. Social-distancing is a mode of self-quarantine, and — in a time of pandemics — is also how we can battle the novel coronavirus. The people of Eyam's distant history set an aspirational example of how few with courage can change the course of a vulnerable majority.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, your country might have restricted people from leaving their houses, but the final decision might be up to your initiative. Let us ask the question: Where does that leave you? Outside or inside the circle?