“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” -Mark Twain

-By Alec Pruchniki, MD

When Covid-19 hit New York City in early 2020, I wanted to find some way to document what I was seeing. As an older adult myself, living in the city, and as a physician with a primary care practice in an assisted living facility, I thought I might make observations about details of life during this pandemic that the main stream media missed. I started to put posts on Facebook, almost daily, about what I saw at the ground level. When I ended this long narrative, and at the encouragement of friends, I thought that maybe the posts should be collected and published in the hope that somebody somewhere would discover something of value. 

These personal ground level observations and posts about life in New York City during the Covid pandemic are unlike anything commonly reported in the national mass media. This looks at the people in the streets, subways, bars, restaurants, stores and museums. It is an attempt to see and remember the fine details that previous accounts missed. Ranging from April 2020 to April 2022 it is not just about the horrors of the plague itself, but also of the resistance, resilience and the start of recovery. It is as much about hope for the future as despair about the past.

Available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, trying to get it carried by local bookstores.

As other plagues have been described in Western literature, I thought I would look at similar works. I read The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Plague by Albert Camus, and Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. Each of these were based on different plagues, but the actual narrators of the stories were fictional and the events were described retrospectively. 

The Decameron, written in 1353, describes the 1348 bubonic plague in Florence, Italy. Although officials of the city try and isolate it when they hear of plague further east, it somehow enters Florence and spreads rapidly. Ten apparently wealthy citizens of the city, along with their servants, go to a palace outside of town and stay there telling stories to pass the time. They tell ten stories each, offering 100 tales in ten days, providing the book its title. Most of the stories are about love, sex, scandal, and repeats of various Renaissance stories. The plague itself serves as a way of setting up the format. Journal of the Plague Year describes the plague in London in 1665 but was written over 50 years later. Defoe appears to have researched the details but didn’t actually live through them. The Plague by Camus does not describe an actual event in Oran, Algeria in the 1940s, although there had been previous plagues there throughout history. It does appear to be an actual description of what occurs in a plague but also served as an intentional allegory to the Nazi occupation of France. 

Although these stories didn’t help me put my book together, they were useful. Similar events also occurred throughout history concurrent with these other disasters, but not all identically (hence the subtitle of this article).

Denial comes first. China minimized the seriousness of Covid. President Trump said there were only a few cases, no more serious than the flu, and it would be gone in a few months. Officials in Florence thought they could close the city and avoid infection. Londoners weren’t initially worried since the disease hit only a few parts of the city, and residents of Oran felt that the thousands of dead rats in the streets were upsetting, but it wasn’t clear what that indicated.

When the going gets tough, and the epidemic is unavoidable, the rich folks flee from town. New Yorkers who could afford to did so en masse. The ten citizens of Florence had hidden in a palace. The English royal family left London for the duration of the plague. Residents in Oran had tried to leave, until the city was closed and put on quarantine.

Social distancing and isolation weren’t first conceived in 2020 and weren’t always voluntary, as it was a few years ago here. There were quarantines for some cities, and individual cases in Florence and Oran, but in London it was rigorously enforced. An individual who caught the plague, along with their entire family, would be forced to stay on quarantine in their home. The theory was that the family was already infected from the initial case, so there was no option other than to ride out the course of the disease. Watchmen were hired to stay in front of quarantined houses for 24 hours a day, and in some cases the doors were nailed shut. Conflicts arose and healthy family members would slip isolation by sneaking out back doors, bribery of the guards, or sometimes outright lethal violence. And we complained about wearing masks!

What can my story add to these classic accounts, and all those I don’t know about? First, unlike the historical authors, I actually lived through the epidemic, in the heart of one of its epicenters. Second, my observations were made directly and not derived from accounts and histories of others. Third, I looked for the small details left out of the mainstream media accounts and medical literature—in a city as diverse as New York there were lots of details that varied from building to building, block to block, and neighborhood to neighborhood. Finally, as a doctor, I saw how my patients were suffering, but also coping, surviving, and rebounding as the pandemic lessened. Although I’m an amateur writer, I hope my work can contribute to the literature on plagues so that we will be a little better at coping the next time one hits. And, there will be a next time.

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