The English word quarantine derives from the Italian quarantino for forty days, alluding to the forty days that merchant vessels were barred from maritime ports like Venice if they had come from plague-stricken regions. Seven hundred years ago, as Europe was routinely being ravaged by outbreaks of the Black Death, the original mandates were for 30 days — a trentino — but practitioners of Physick pushed for a biblically inspired 40-day period of purification.
In early colonial American history, quarantine protocols varied from municipality to municipality, province to province, and later from state to state. But, once again, they centered around ports of entry, because outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera could nearly always be traced to incoming merchant or passenger vessels. After one too many devastating yellow fever outbreaks, the federal government passed quarantine legislation in 1878, paving the way for greater federal involvement in preventing pandemics.
By 1921 the quarantine system was nationalized. By the middle of the last century over 500 quarantine stations were located at every port, international airport, and major border crossing. This was a fact of life with global commerce and intercourse scaling up in modern industrialized nations, but it was by no means novel. Disease has always spread through the mercantile intermingling of peoples in our great trade centers, where everyone converges to exchange what they have for what they need.
This is not a consequence of current models of global commerce, but global commerce period. This is not China’s fault in particular, or our fault for trading with China in general, any more than it has ever been anyone’s particular or general fault that the invisible malice of malady plagues human societies.
(Semi-relatedly, it has very little to do with our narrow-minded disgust at differing cultural norms or ancestral cuisines, even those that probably have outlived their sell-by-date. These kinds of diseases are equally as likely to make the animal-to-human jump in conventionally-raised cattle, hogs, or fowl as they are in pangolins or bats, neither of which vectors can actually be concluded at present from the evidence.)
The governmental response is not an act of tyranny, it’s a well-precedented — both historically and legally — cross-cultural, transpolitical program that we find especially shocking because we have the inordinate privilege of an unusually long period of freedom from pestilence; such that there has been no comparable pandemic in living memory.
Imagine the sheer improbable degree of personal privilege you must have to be outraged by barely a monthlong restriction on your mobility. Imagine that you, with all your petty problems, have made it to your second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, maybe ninth decade of life and the vast majority of it has transpired with almost none of the miseries that afflicted mankind universally for our first 100,000 years of fully conscious suffering?
Holy fuck! Maybe it’s actually that you’re a pretty little cake-gobbling princess in the throes of American affluence, rather than that Governor So-and-so is an intolerable tyrant!?
How’bout this? Scientists are only beginning to publish studies to project the extent and duration of immunity to SARS-CoV‑2 and how long and under what conditions it will take to build herd immunity sufficiently that our healthcare system won’t be overwhelmed by every new outbreak. Something that puts everyone’s lives at risk by concentrating all of our efforts routinely on pandemic response rather than on the millions of other health issues facing Americans on any given day; particularly our biggest killers, heart disease and cancer.
These studies are not illustrative of any real or actual outcome. No, we will not be under lockdown until the summer of 2022. That’s clickbait from a scientifically illiterate press that profits on sensationalism. The recent Harvard study is a warning of the “potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted“ IF “distancing is poorly effective and/or not sustained for long enough.”
As Zeynep Tüfekçi pointed out recently in the Atlantic, these kinds of studies are not really predictions, though, they’re warnings that describe a “range of possibilities” and that “those possibilities are highly sensitive to our actions.” The more that we get of these studies, the better we’ll be positioned to understand the fullest range of possibilities and act accordingly.
One of those possibilities is that if we reject quarantine protocols now and into the near future, we could end up with periods of sustained isolation over the course years, as the disease surges and resurges. IF… and it’s a big IF… IF we get our panties in a knot and reject the tyranny of present policies like self-obsessed twats.
What we do know is that
a) this is happening and left unchecked it could have easily been and still could be one of the deadliest of pandemics;
b) it will change our social life, as it has in the short term but quite possibly in very important ways permanently;
c) this is likely only the first in what many have been predicting are global conditions ripe for new, especially aggressive viral mutations to spread like wildfire;
d) we have to box up our egos, shelve them in a dark closet, and lay the money on the table to shore up so much that is broken in our society, fractures and fault-lines that have made managing this crisis harder and rendered it more destructive than comprehensive but costly preparedness would have.
How we collectively choose to behave in the coming weeks will demonstrate whether we have the grit of our ancestors or if we’ll throw a temper tantrum and extend the forty days in the desert into a Lent that never really ends.