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LETTER: In midst of pandemic, let’s learn from mining village of Eyam

As history shows, travel bans and other safety precautions can save lives

Dear Editor,

We are in the midst of what we would have at one time called a plague and is now known as a pandemic.

We are under attack by the coronavirus, COVID 19.

We have all been asked by our health authorities and governments to join in taking action to minimize the effects of the virus and many of us are doing so.

But as the pandemic works its uncertain way through this 21 year of the 21st century, people become impatient and begin to question the rules their governments have made for them.

Governments begin to distrust the people they govern.

Residents do not like being asked to stay at home, to limit non-essential travel and not to drive out of province.

Citizens complain when officials ban flights from countries where they have relatives.

READ MORE: Canadian families separated by India, Pakistan flight suspensions worry about loved ones

Tourists and holiday-makers refuse to stay away from crowded destinations.

Orders to close pubs and restaurants and other gathering paces are met with resistance.

Governments and health authorities disagree about the closing of schools and playgrounds. The enforced closing of churches is met with rebellion by congregations, even to the point of legal action.

RELATED: Camping close to home still permitted under B.C. travel ban: Henry

Plague and pestilence, of course, are not new.

There have been few times in history when people in some part of the world have not suffered from them. There were devastating plagues in Libya, Egypt, and Syria in Biblical times. By the sixth century the bubonic plague, “the most dangerous disease known to mankind,” had arrived in Europe as part of “a great cycle of pestilence, which lasted 50 years and spread over the whole Roman world.”

The Black Death, which swept through Northern Europe in the 14th century, killed from two-thirds to three-quarters of the population.

Plagues continued to occur in Europe through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. In 1665, seventy-thousand Londoners died in six months as the disease rampaged through the city.

Although the great plague was confined mainly to London, it found its way to the tiny mining village of Eyam ,150 miles away in the beautiful Derbyshire hills. With it came both horror and heroism. When it departed 13 months later, only 90 of the 350 villagers were still alive.

The first to die was George Vicars, the local tailor. He had received a parcel of infected cloth from London. Others quickly followed. In eight days, Elizabeth Hancock of Riley Farm buried her husband and all six of her children.

Fearing the disease would spread beyond Eyam’s borders, the 26-year-old rector, William Mompesson, persuaded his parishioners to remain in the village and seal themselves off from the outside world.

Day and night for the next 13 months the rector, aided at first by his young wife, Katherine, helped to feed and nurse those in distress. Every Sunday he preached in the open air to keep distance between those who were ill and those who had not yet succumbed.

Almost daily he held services for the victims as they were buried in the fields close to where they had lived and died.

Near the end of the summer, Katherine, weakened by months of caring for sick and dying friends and loved ones, fell ill herself and died in her husbands arms. Shortly afterwards he wrote, “The condition of the town has been so dreadful… I may truly say it has become a place of skulls.”

If you visit Eyam today, you can go into the old church and read the names of the 260 plague victims and the dates when each one died.

You can walk out into the sunlight past the tomb of Katherine Mompesson, past George Vicars’ cottage and the rows of little, grey stone houses where the villagers lived and stayed and waited for death.

You can take the path through the fields of graves to the village boundary and see the well and the place where people from outside left food and gifts and messages of hope and love.

And you can share in the present day residents’ proud knowledge that during the terrible spring, summer, and autumn of 1666 not one of the villagers left Eyam and not one case of plague was discovered in any of the surrounding communities.

Not one.

RELATED: B.C. officials to announce travel restrictions today to limit COVID-19 spread

Alan Woodland, Maple Ridge


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