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Plague, Lockdown and Corona-virus

Updated: May 26, 2021

This article was written and researched by my daughter Martha Ashburn

In the week before lock down our Plague escape room was by far our most popular game - probably because the Corona-virus outbreak was on people's minds. Two months later we now know that sadly thousands of people have died from Covid19 and the lock down has only been eased slightly.

Being unable to go to work and carry on with life as normal due to Covid-19 got me thinking of the grim parallels when Newcastle suffered one of the worst outbreaks of the plague in English history, with almost half of its population of 20,000 being killed by it in the space of a few hot months in 1636? I never thought that being locked up with the same people amidst a deadly disease would become a reality. So, as the Corona-virus lockdown progresses, it is important to remember that we are not the first population to experience such restrictions on our lives as a result of infectious disease.

As a busy shipping port, the plague likely entered our city on the fleas on the rats of commercial ships. In a similar sort of way, the Corona-virus grimly spread across the world from Wuhan, China all the way to Newcastle. How exactly? Global trade, leisurely travel and internal migration that brought the virus from our national virus epicentre in London, here to Newcastle.

What was it like for those living through the Black Death and the Great Plague, and are there any similarities with life today alongside Corona-virus? ‘Ralph Tailor’s Summer’ by Keith Wrightson provided me with much of background knowledge about the plague in Newcastle that was needed to create the details of our first escape room, the Plague room and bring an authentic feel for our customers. It seems like now, the plague disproportionately affected the poorer in society who were generally less healthy anyway and lived in cramped insanitary conditions. Wealthy people followed the medical advice of the time which was “leave quickly, go far away and come back slowly.”

The poor, though, had no place to go, and without a welfare state they needed the continue working to survive. More information can be found in Mary E Fissel's article in The Washington Post.

But how do our responses to infectious disease compare, 380 years apart? Well, we still use the practice of quarantining sick people to prevent them from passing it onto others. The national plague orders of 1578 laid down that plague-infected houses shut up for six weeks (or 40 days, which is where we get the word quarantine from) , with all members of the household – sick and healthy alike – confined together. This is actually stricter than our quarantine period today which of course says that when a person in a household is infected with Covid-19, all members must remain inside together for just two weeks. Plague houses would often be marked with a red cross and a visit from a Plague doctor would be dreaded by the sick inhabitants. Unable to offer any treatment, the 'doctor' would - for a fee - ease their suffering. At best the administering of arsenic for a quick death but battering to death with hammers was not uncommon. Thankfully this is no longer practiced by today's NHS doctors and nurses.

The use of masks to help the spread of disease has returned. The beak-like plague doctor mask has become an iconic symbol of past plagues. However, these masks were not used for quite the same purpose as today. As in the past, it was commonly believed that the plague spread through ‘miasma’ (inhaling bad smelling air), so the ‘beak’ area of these masks was stuffed with herbs and flowers to overpower any foul-smelling air. During the Corona-virus pandemic, we are encouraged to wear face coverings to help reduce the spread of droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person.

Newcastle was a very different city in 1636 that 2020, though. Even with our usually busy streets practically empty, today we can remain connected with our loved ones – be it through long chatty phone calls, a scroll through social media to see what everyone is up to or, new to most of us, frenzied Zoom calls and quizzes. But this was not the case all those years ago, when isolation truly meant isolation with no contact or insight with anyone outside of your household for six weeks straight, sometimes even more. Some people, particularly single women in Newcastle, starved to death in their own homes. For most, housing was cramped and dirty and the sacrifice of quarantine with the plague was a severely horrific one.

So, as the days unfold, and we remain in lock down, we can remember how plagues in the past affected those living in Newcastle 380 years ago. If anything, we can be reminded that hardship will not last and that even when it resurfaces, we can learn from the past to ensure that we handle it as best as we can.

Plague, like our other escape rooms is currently closed while we await for announcements that the leisure and hospitality sector can reopen. However we are selling vouchers at 25% off should you wish to buy someone a gift.

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