Plagues, progress & humanism

An appreciation of humanist values and progress in these dark times. Opinion piece Barking & Dagenham Post 6.5.20.

Did you know Barking was a key site of the first recorded plague in England? History helps put today’s crisis in perspective.

The Venerable Bede, a medieval author, describes how pestilence struck Barking Abbey in 664 AD, not long after its foundation. The onset coincided with an eclipse. It was believed this was the hand of God at work.

The last bubonic pandemic took place almost exactly 1000 years later.  An estimated 100,000 Londoners died in the ‘Great Plague’ of 1665/6, a quarter of the then population.  ‘The King’s Rules and Orders for Prevention’, preserved in the National Archives, directed monthly fasts and regular prayers “by which means God may be inclined to remove his severe hand both from amongst you and us.”

Our current situation is dreadful. But at least it can be addressed through calm and rational understanding of the true cause of disease without the blind panic, quack remedies and superstition of the past.  We should celebrate the advances in sciences such as evolution, genetics and microbiology which make this possible. They are all due solely to human ingenuity and curiosity.

We now know pandemics occur regularly and are not supernatural. Human intervention based on science, collective effort and cooperation offer hope and the best chance of ameliorating them. The front-line role played by those like NHS and shop staff, delivery drivers and cleaners is crucial. The weekly communal tribute to their work is a profoundly moving expression of enlightened human values and understanding.

Paul Kaufman
Chair East London Humanists

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