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County Hall Corner: History over Hysteria

Are these historic times? It is amazing how much our society has changed through 2020. Of course, much of this comes from the continual uncertainty of the COVID virus. I recently read one account by a world-renowned author noting the fear and poor leadership associated with the spread of the deadly virus. It was entitled, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” written by Daniel Defoe. That name might ring a bell for some, as it is the guy who wrote the classic novel, “Robinson Crusoe.” The year of the plague that he is referring to was in 1665 and the place was London, England.

It is remarkable the number of similarities between that event three and half centuries ago and what we are currently experiencing. A plague of unknown origin was believed to have started in the Middle East, became a concern when reported in Holland (probably as a result of Middle East trading), and in late 1664 was suspected as the cause of two deaths in the outskirts of London.

Authorities were uncertain on what to do as through 1664 and the early months of 1665 there were few officially reported plague deaths. They fluctuated between taking necessary precautions and yet wishing to avoid a needless panic. But by the summer of 1665, it was apparent that plague death had come to London, and the well-to-do moved to the countryside and the less fortunate with nowhere to go suffered through the bulk of the epidemic. The media, such as it was, suffered with a shortage of facts but no shortage of rumors and superstitions. Ultimately, severe government restrictions came in force and any family that showed signs of the plague had their homes locked and even guarded to insure no one got outside.

The Great Plague of London of 1666 cost the lives of over 100,000 people, approximately 20 percent of the population. It was quickly followed with the Great Fire of London that burned out a quarter of the urban metropolis, destroying the homes of some 70,000 inhabitants. Yet, amazingly, London learned from these disasters and recovered and by 1830 it became the largest city in the world where it stood into the next century.

This history lesson should hopefully provide some perspective for the present times we live in. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A very recent Gallup poll noted that the fear that grips our country appears to be heavily on the side of those who identify as Democrats rather than Republicans. Democrats are more worried about getting the coronavirus, 77 percent (men), 80 percent (women) to Republicans 20 percent (men) and 29 percent (women). Democrats avoid going to public places 70 percent (men), 73 percent (women) compared to Republicans, 31 percent (men) and 38 percent (women). The fear is especially seen in the question of those who are ready to return to normal activities right now; Republicans are 64 percent of men and 54 percent women compared to just 5 percent of the Democratic men and 3 percent of the Democratic women. (Ref:

Now, it might be true that the Democrats’ caution is wiser than Republicans’ lack of caution, but perhaps the difference could well be tied to the source of information that these two groups prefer. If the news source is providing a 24/7 drumbeat of gloom and doom, it is not surprising that it would be reflected in the opinions of the viewers.

To the credit of our local leaders in Lycoming County, from the County Commissioners, and through the ranks of the Sheriff’s office, the DA’s office, the Office of Public Safety, in virtually every department, the one common thread is a lack of panic and fear. Yes, everyone’s job has got much harder, and no one knows what to expect next, yet through months of public meetings, press conferences, and special sessions, they are continually honest with their concerns, recognize that there is hard work ahead, but hopeful in the process.

And maybe we might gain something valuable through this experience. Going back to London’s plague, there was a young Cambridge student who in 1665 went to a family estate in northern England and experienced what he later referred to as “the year of wonders.” On his own he began to work through mathematical problems which resulted in discovering calculus, studied light which developed into breakthrough theories on optics, and yes, watching falling apples from a tree led to new theories of gravity and motion. When this student, Isaac Newton, returned to Cambridge, he received his fellowship (doctorate degree) in six months and in two years became a professor.

As John F. Kennedy once noted, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”

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  • John F Shireman
    October 25, 2020, 6:25 pm

    I read your article from 10/21/20 about the corona virus and the Gullup pole you mention quite often. You forgot one thing that that pole proves is that on the whole Democrats are smarter than most Republicans like you concerning the corona virus. Have the nerve to respond

    John F. Shireman