Robert Zaretsky is a literary biographer and historian. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas."

Three hundred years ago, the bubonic plague erupted in the French port of Marseille, surged across Provence and left more than 100,000 dead in its wake. While France struggled to contain the pestilential wave, Britain, which had been scarred by the Great Plague of 1665, looked on in horror. Events in Marseilles convulsed public opinion, catalyzed political polarization — and convinced Daniel Defoe to write a book, one whose insights have an uncanny relevance for our own day.

By 1720, Defoe was a well-known journalist who had just published, at the ripe age of 60 years, that best-selling novel of rugged individualism, “Robinson Crusoe.” Defoe was also a businessman who grasped the economic consequences of the plague. Britain’s wealth depended on maritime commerce, now threatened by the plague’s reappearance. If Britain were to survive, Defoe concluded, individual rights and national obligations had to coexist.

But how to balance the two? The government, under Robert Walpole, pushed Parliament to pass a controversial Quarantine Act, which authorized local officials to impose a 40-day quarantine on infected persons and sentence to death those who defied the order. Moreover, officials could use “any kind of violence” necessary to quarantine those suspected of infection. Finally, the Crown was empowered to dig a deep trench around any quarantined town or village and order the shooting of any individual who attempted to cross it.

Outraged conservative members of Parliament declared that the act might be fit for the despot-loving French but not for “free-born Englishmen.” They no doubt identified with the solitary and self-reliant Crusoe, but that was no longer true for Crusoe’s creator, who was closely following events in France. Defoe’s fascination was due, in part, to childhood memories of the Great Plague. But it seems he also had become a hired hand of the government, which desperately needed his help to defend the Quarantine Act.

The result was “Journal of the Plague Year.” Published in 1722, it was the rarest of birds: a work of immediate political propaganda that is also a work of lasting literary importance. A man of business (he owned a tile factory) as well as a man of letters, Defoe mostly supported the Quarantine Act. But he also took issue with the most extreme measures — measures the government eventually dropped. While an Englishman might be freeborn, this did not give him the freedom to consign others to death. In another work, “Due Preparations for the Plague,” Defoe laments the avarice and selfishness that threaten the government’s measures: The British have, he explodes, “people mong us so bent upon their gain” that they would even import the plague if it were profitable.

Defoe’s fictional alter ego, H.F., reveals the complexity of the task. Walking the streets of 17th-century London, he sees how the plague has exposed the nation’s stark social inequities. The privileged have fled the city, leaving behind the poor. They are prey not just to the plague but also to hucksters peddling miracle cures — pitch and tar, rosin and brimstone — that anticipate our own shysters pushing hydroxychloroquine and disinfectant.

H.F. also takes issue with the official tallies of the dead, known as the Bills of Mortality, republished by Walpole’s government to emphasize the plague’s lethality. In a series of harrowing vignettes, H.F. reveals that these numbers, portraying a government in control of the situation, dramatically undercounted the real number of deaths. How in God’s name, he wonders, could officials “take an exact Tale of the dead Bodies, which were all huddled together in the Dark into the Pit, or Trench, that no Man could come nigh but at the utmost Peril.” As a result, whereas the bills counted 68,590 dead, H.F. insists that “there died at least 100,000 of the Plague.”

According to historians, H.F. got it right. He also got right many other things, such as the necessity of social distancing and the role of dedicated public officials in managing the crisis. He also foresaw the danger of asymptomatic carriers. With a disturbing metaphor, H.F. describes the consequences of “THE WELL.” Filling this well were those who had “received the Contagion yet did not shew the Consequences,” those who “breathed Death in every Place, and upon every Body who came near them,” those whose “Hands would infect the Things they touch’d.” These “dangerous People” should be shunned, but as H.F. notes, it was impossible to recognize them.

As a result, H.F. concludes despairingly, “it is impossible to prevent the spreading of the Plague by the utmost human Vigilance.” But it is unlikely that he would despair today. Like H.F., Defoe was a man whose faith in reason ran as deep as his faith in God — one who would applaud the means we now have to recognize and care for these “dangerous People.” But he would also be astounded over our own government’s refusal to marshal these means, leading him to pick up his plume to write a sequel: “Journal of the Plague Year That Did Not Need to Be.”

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