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The Return of the Victorian Era

Are we entering an age of societal regression?

Do you remember that measles outbreak earlier this semester? I can hardly believe that to be a sentence I can say in 2024. It was late January that we all received a message from the proctor with the subject, Important message - measles in St Andrews, some thought it was a joke, others a typo. But no, the Victorian-era disease really did make a comeback in the UK with the NHS confirming 521 cases since 1 October of last year. It even managed to weasel its way into our auld grey toon. All I can say is that it’s awakened a new fear in me. Is our society in decline? Is this just the beginning of the end?


I know, I know I sound like one of those paranoid dooms-dayers. But in all seriousness, the return of Victorian-era diseases and the ever-growing social divide is all too evocative of 19th-century Britain. Aside from measles, other archaic diseases, like Scabies, Rickets, and Scurvy, have made a comeback. The causes for many of these stems from poor diet and living conditions, usually seen among lower-income classes. Scabies, for instance — an itchy rash caused by mites which burrow beneath the skin to lay their eggs — is spread through close skin contact and is usually associated with squalor and overcrowding. If you ask me, the housing and cost of living crisis is rather Dickensian, almost reminiscent of Victorian London. The list of diseases continues. Recently, a friend of mine quipped about developing scurvy from the woeful absence of fruits and veg in our dining hall. But apparently, the disease doesn’t only affect 19th-century sailors, in fact, some 188 people were treated for scurvy in the past year with a further 10,000 hospitalised for other cases of malnutrition — this is a stark 400 per cent increase since the last decade — someone tell the government to roll out the barrels of lemons.


We make fun of Victorians for giving their children lead-based figurines as chew toys, plastering their sitting rooms with arsenic-dyed wallpapers, and bulking their bread with chalk when really, we’re not much better.  Preservatives, artificial sugars, and food dyes are all veiled toxins that we ingest on a daily basis, and the result? The sad reality is that the UK is overfed and undernourished. A greater consumption of easy-access, ultra-processed foods has displaced balanced diets and disproportionately affects poorer communities.


The Centre for Social Justice warns that the UK is “slipping back to the social divide of the Victorian era” and the country is in danger of falling back into the “Two Nations” which characterised the 19th century. There has been much discourse on the prevailing class divide in the UK, one that seems woven into the fabric of British society; but the rift we are seeing now is even more worrisome. It's between the mainstream society and a depressed and poverty-stricken underclass, creating a dark ‘underbelly’ of society. Poverty and disease are closely correlated: children residing in deprived neighbourhoods face a twofold higher risk of succumbing to infections compared to those in the least deprived areas.


It seems that the age of progress has stalled, and what has replaced it, is an age of regress. From Victorian diseases, to falling life expectancy, the erosion of democracy, economic stagnation and widening social divides — all exacerbated by a cost-of-living crisis, reliance on AI and the prevalence of delusional online mob behaviour replacing genuine communication and relationships for many.

We’re at a crossroads as a society, and to put it in Victorian terms, I’ve really ‘got the morbs’ from it all.

Illustration from Wikimedia Commons

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