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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.