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U3A explores lessons from past lockdowns

Are there lessons that can be learned from how our ancestors survived past plagues and pestilence? That was the question posed by Susan and Andrew Green in their talk on Past Lockdowns given to Ilkley & District U3A earlier this month.

Although it in no way diminishes the seriousness of our current situation with Covid, the Greens draw parallels with lockdowns during the Tudors and Stuart’s in the 16th and 17th centuries when there were periods of plague and quarantine. Susan gives her part of the talk first and explains that in bygone eras our predecessors felt very vulnerable as there were no vaccines, cures or effective treatments. They did, however, realise that quarantining, social distancing, meeting outdoors and limiting indoor contact were sensible ways to restrict the spread of disease - all measures that we have copied in reacting to the current situation.

Then, as now, there were both social and economic impacts. It may seem a new idea, but

Rishi Sunak wasn’t the first to suggest furloughing staff and financial support for affected businesses. In 1603 James 1 issued Orders telling people what they must do in times of plague. These included closing businesses, particularly theatres, and staying indoors. This was the time when the term ‘furlough’ was first used. Later when everything reopened, the King gave his royal patronage to many businesses, which helped to get them back on their feet - the 17th century equivalent to our modern loans and grants.

On the brighter side, past lockdowns also led to periods of creativity and discovery. Like today, theatres were closed during a period of plague in Queen Elizabeth1st’s reign. This forced a young jobbing actor called William Shakespeare to turn to writing - first poems and then plays during subsequent lockdowns. Would we have had all these brilliant works if there had been no lockdowns, asks Susan? Similarly, in the plague years of 1665-6, when universities closed, Isaac Newton left Cambridge to work at home. It was then that he did most of his most important scientific work on optics, calculus and gravity. Today our young scientists, musicians and writers are doing exactly the same. The breakthrough of producing a Covid vaccine in under a year shows what a creative time this is.

Andrew concluded the talk with a case study about the plague village of Eyam in north Derbyshire. He says that although the plague spread quickly once it reached the village in 1665, it was contained in the end by a process of social distancing, worshipping outdoors, and completely locking down the village to the outside world. Interestingly recent research has discovered that the descendants of the villagers (mostly women) who didn’t contract the plague carry a particular gene. Is there a similar explanation as to why some people carry Covid asymptomatically?

If you are interested in listening to the whole of Susan and Andrew Green’s talk, it can be accessed free of charge to both members and non-members through the Ilkley & District U3A’s website at This talk was first given to Barnsley U3A and is one of the new online events offered by the U3A. If you would like to find out about other online U3A activities, then joining the U3A has never been simpler. Just go to the website and follow the links.

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