February 24, 2024

COVID Diaries: A Mirror of Samuel Pepys’ Plague Diaries

Keeping diaries has proven to be a valuable practice throughout history, serving as a means to record events, process difficult situations, and manage stress and trauma. In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, diaries have taken on an additional role, shedding light on the political and historic significance of this unprecedented crisis. One striking similarity emerges when comparing the COVID diaries of ordinary people with the Great Plague diaries of 17th-century London: they both provide invaluable insights into how individuals navigate crises.

Since the first lockdown in March 2020, various media outlets, archive centers, and researchers have encouraged people to document their pandemic experiences. Even children’s entertainer Mr. Tumble from the BBC urged young viewers to start their own diaries. As a result, a significant number of COVID diaries have been made available in archive collections across the UK, with many more existing in the digital realm as blogs or social media posts. The focus of this research, however, lies in 13 COVID diaries donated to the Borthwick Institute for Archives and the East Riding Archives in Yorkshire. These diaries, originally intended for private consumption, offer an authentic, unfiltered portrayal of personal experiences during the pandemic.

In contrast, diaries documenting the Great Plague are much rarer. Of the few available, the most valuable and comprehensive account belongs to Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator from the 17th century. Pepys’ detailed and candid journals offer an unparalleled firsthand narrative of life during plague-stricken London.

By examining Pepys’ diaries alongside contemporary COVID diaries, striking similarities emerge in how people navigate and respond to pandemics. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, official statistics on cases and deaths have played a significant role in assessing the impact of the virus. An entry from June 5, 2020, illustrates the gravity of the situation: “It was time to watch the coronavirus update, and I was shocked to find that over 40,000 people have now died from the disease in this country, and it’s not over yet!” In 17th-century London, relatively accurate information was disseminated through the bills of mortality, weekly lists of deaths categorized by cause and location. Pepys noted, “Sent for the Weekely Bill and find 8252 dead in all, and of them, 6978 of the plague—which is a most dreadful Number—and shows reason to fear that the plague hath got that hold that it will yet continue among us.”

These statistics appear consistently in both historical and modern diaries, albeit with varying levels of detail. As case numbers rose, restrictions were implemented, and the effects of the plague and COVID-19 dominated daily life, narratives shifted towards confusion and blame. Pepys expressed sympathy for the government’s handling of the plague and criticized individuals who ignored safety measures, stating how people “would breathe in the faces … of well people going by.” Similarly, contemporary COVID diarists were quick to condemn those who flouted guidelines, with entries like “Stupid and selfish in equal measure” reflecting the frustration and disillusionment with non-compliant behavior.

The diaries also shed light on the scrutiny faced by governments and individual politicians. An anonymous COVID diarist from May 2020 pondered the government’s approach, writing, “There are fewer deaths because of social distancing. If they let everyone get on with the ‘new normal,’ surely more people will get sick?” The actions of the UK government and its leaders garnered significant attention in both historical and modern diaries.

Amidst the chaos and hardships, a recurrent theme in both sets of diaries is the ability to find positivity. Pepys and contemporary diarists expressed gratitude for their health, families, and security. They recognized and praised the efforts of individuals going above and beyond to support others in the face of adversity, despite the risks to their own well-being. Pepys’ entry on New Year’s Eve 1665 captures this sentiment: “My whole family hath been well all this while… Pray God continue the plague’s decrease!” A more recent entry from April 2020 reflects appreciation for nature and empathy for those in more challenging circumstances: “It was lovely walking through the wood… It must be awful to live ten floors up in a high-rise block with two children and not be allowed out except for once per day.”

Drawing parallels between COVID-19 and historical events such as the Great Plague, the Spanish flu epidemic, and the Second World War has been a prevalent theme throughout the pandemic. By exploring the innermost thoughts of individuals with shared experiences, we can discern enduring aspects of the human condition. When confronted with uncertainty and upheaval, our instinct is to record, seek answers, and reclaim joy.

In conclusion, COVID diaries serve as vital historical artifacts, exposing the impact of the pandemic on society and providing remarkable similarities to the Great Plague diaries of Samuel Pepys. Regardless of the passage of time, fundamental aspects of human behavior and response remain consistent. Diaries not only serve as personal accounts but also connect generations through shared experiences, reminding us that history continues to shape our present

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1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it