The myth that it was the removal of the handle of the water pump in Broad street on 8 September 1854 which brought about an end to the cholera epidemic is well known among those who study social medicine and population health. The disease was thought to spread via miasma, and lightening without the sound of thunder was once believed to begin an outbreak. Faced with a new disease we initially flounder.
In the 166 years since John Snow removed the pump handle, there have only been five occasions when mortality suddenly rose by at least an eighth in a year across England and Wales. These were in 1918 (influenza: deaths rose by 23%), 1940 (war: 16%), 1929 (cold winter: 16%), 1895 (the great freeze: 14%) and in the year to the end of June 2020 (COVID-19: 13%). The relative rise in mortality in the year to end June 2020 was greater than the Cholera years of 1846 (12%) or 1849 (10%), let alone the smaller rise in 1854 – although of course if measured by years-of-life lost, the 2020 rise will be less.
The first draft of the story of 2020 has been written in the newspapers and academic pre-prints; but what becomes the final story will depend on which tales win out to not be seen as myths. To what extent was the timing of the lockdown vital and whose models were most influential or believable? The story I have to tell starts with this: ‘By summer 2020 life expectancy in England and Wales for both men and women was back to what it had been a decade earlier, in 2010, most of that failure was probably due to austerity and mean-mindedness, but at least a year was lost at the time of the 2020 pandemic…’