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BONNIE GREER: In praise of the hidden workers who keep society ticking

Nurses working during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: PA/Jacob King - Credit: PA

Health staff are rightly receiving praise, but don’t forget those other workers still at their posts on the frontline of the virus battle, says BONNIE GREER.

This was the beginning of May, yet the weather was temperate, variable and cool enough…the city was healthy …St Giles buried two and thirty…

This passage comes near the beginning of Daniel Defoe’s epic A Journal Of The Plague Year, first published in 1722.

A masterpiece of observational journalism, it describes the outbreak of bubonic plague that London suffered in 1665. Yet it is, in fact, a kind of novel, because at the time of the epidemic Defoe was only five years old.

Signed ‘HF’, it tells the story of the plague as it played itself out in the capital. Scholars believe that HF, the observer and narrator, signifies Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, a saddler in the East End.

Journal tells tales and makes observations about the rich and the poor; the good and the bad. But its brilliance lies in its stories about ordinary people caught up in something that they cannot understand.

Like the coronavirus, The Great Plague of 1665 was invisible, making itself apparent only when it appeared on its victims, people who had no means to fight back. They had no knowledge of the fact that pandemics have existed throughout human history. They are part of our human story.

For example, the Great Plague of London was an outbreak of a bacterium that had appeared off and on since prehistoric times. This bacterium, too, was once blamed on China. Until scientists found evidence of it in an ancient Swedish tomb.

Yersinia pestis, the name of the bacterium, may – some scientists believe – have contributed to what is called the Neolithic decline. Around 3,000 BC, European populations suffered a significant decline. Until the theory that this may have been the result of a pandemic caused by an especially virulent bacterium, this wipeout of humanity was a mystery.

It is easy to see how pandemics can shape the course of human history. As Covid-19 may be doing now.

The first victims of the 1665 Great Plague were buried in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields – as mentioned in that passage from Defoe – in what is now Soho.

In the parish listing of that year, more than 3,200 deaths are recorded. This number exceeded the number of documented households in the parish.

Like Defoe, I am a Londoner. Like Defoe, I walk a great deal.

I live within walking distance of St Giles. I was not able to hear its bells before the lockdown. That’s because I live on the other side, one street over from Oxford Street, 10 minutes on foot from Oxford Circus.

Church bells go unheard in these parts. Too many people; too many cars and buses; too much drilling; too many competing musics. I am a metropolitan and I love this.

But now, the quiet, the desertion has revealed a new population to me. One I have never really paid much attention to.

The full title of Defoe’s book adds that it contains ‘observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation’.

This is what has occurred to me, this is what I have observed as I venture out about three times a week or so to power-walk and get some fresh air, a strange and new phenomenon in the West End of London.

I then get in supplies and go back inside. I have to package and send some NHS medication to a loved one in France every fortnight. He has a pleasant home there, so the hardship on that score is minimal, but the country is in lockdown, so he’s there.

This delivery entails going to the chemist to pick up the medication, and then contacting a delivery service to get it to France. Buying food and going to a chemist are largely unconscious activities for me. I’m usually writing something in my head. But since the lockdown I have noticed something. I have noticed working people, who they are; what they do; what they are still doing.

Defoe observed this too and describes a kind of 17th century social distancing…

The butcher would not touch the money, but had it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyers carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might make no change. They carried bottles for scents and perfumes in their hands.

At the places where I buy food, the people who work there are on the job, stacking and scrubbing down and being friendly. These are my regular places and I know some of these people. But the smaller food places have a transient population, mostly young.

They are cheerful, too, and work quickly, I suspect to avoid contact and contamination. They stand outside to ensure that everyone is maintaining social distancing, and a few weeks ago kept a close eye on hoarding.

You never know whether a person is shopping for several households, or for the vulnerable, so best not to judge. But it is interesting to watch the staff.

At the chemists, everything is ready, packaged and handed over with a smile. The security guards on the door nod and you can tell that there is a smile under their masks. Maybe someday soon, these guys will be taking the temperature of every customer who comes to the chemists.

The guy who picks up the medicine to send off to France is also friendly and moves quickly and efficiently. One or two guys driving the largely empty buses up and down Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus sometimes wave.

They are all still here. Still working. These people, who work in the shops, get our food to us, deliver and pick up our stuff, are frontliners. If they did not work, were not at work, society would collapse.

In the United States, people are starting to understand one of the reasons that the ethnic minority population has been hit so hard in this pandemic. Many in this group are what is called ‘front facing’: the people who deliver stuff; who pump the gas, serve the food, work in the factories, work in the shops, clean the houses. This is nothing new, but now the consequences of it, of this social inequality, are tragically and outrageously evident.

In my part of London, most of the front-facing people are also ethnic minority. I am sure that they are happy to be working and I am happy, too

They – the shelf-stackers, the wiper-downers, the picker-uppers – are out there to help life run as close to normal as possible. They are, in a very real sense, first responders, too. They help keep us fed and watered; medicated. 
They are heroes, too. I think that 
Defoe’s HF would have noticed them. Seen them as they did their work and made their way back to homes nowhere near where I live. On a bus or a Tube train. Driven by people like them.

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