We could learn something about how to handle a pandemic from 17th-century England. This occurred to me on Monday morning while I was looking at illustrations from the time of the Black Death in London. (Actually, I was googling the “Bring out your dead” scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” if I am being honest, when better stuff popped up.)
In one immediately striking contemporaneous print, Death, in the form of a giant skeleton with dual Arrows of Doom in its bony grasp, stands astride two black coffins. The words “I follow” are to its left; to the right, “We fly,” accompanying a rabble of Londoners being held at bay by people in the countryside armed with spikes and declaring, “Keepe out.”
“We dye” appears in the lower left, above the figure of a dead man and a child clinging to a woman’s chest, which is bare and showing signs of the disease. In the middle background there are more bodies and coffins, and a dog eating something from the ground. A skull, bones, and a rib cage occupy the foreground.
In the sky above this pitiful scene, a black cloud spitting lightning hovers with the words “Lord, have mercy on London” framing it.
Contrast this with today’s Covid-19 messaging with handsome people wearing masks and looking inspirational in crisp, professionally shot photographs.
In East Hampton, a public relations firm hired by the town settled on roadside signs in teal and red to remind everyone to, please, wear a mask. These replaced black on white signs that actually had the mask mandate wrong and had to be changed after the fact, tacked over with a board correcting the error.
For my tax dollar, I’d think Death, lightning, and scattered coffins would be a far more effective pitch.