Quarantine practice has a long history – from stopping outbreaks of plague to preventing the spread of leprosy. Although “Quarantine practice” often effectively restrained the spread of disease, its implementation has a darker side. After the recent outbreak of COVID-19, many countries became isolated and thousands of people self-insulated in their homes. Let’s dig deeper into history and see how quarantine stimulated racial tension and isolated people.
“Plague and fear of the plague separate one nation from another,” wrote Alexander Kinglake in his 1844 guide. For Kinglake, the threat of epidemics has become a barrier of fear between east and west.
Infectious diseases from ancient times destroy the population, causing pain and horror to families and communities, dividing humanity into “clean” and “dirty.” The outbreaks are accompanied by collaborative efforts to contain and eradicate the threat – but, as we have seen from the report of the rise in racism against the Chinese after the recent coronavirus, Quarantine practice is also seriously experiencing human dignity. When and where did the first quarantines take place?
The separation of sick and healthy occurred throughout history. Back in Leviticus, priests could isolate people with a “defiling skin disease,” probably leprosy, for seven days. However, the history of Quarantine practice does not boil down to keeping people at arm’s length. The first organized quarantines in medieval Europe reflect the awareness of the silent presence of disease in healthy people.
With repeated outbreaks of plague destroying medieval Europe during the 14th century, the port administration in the Adriatic responded with the first structured quarantine arrangements. In Venice, incoming ships were detained in the lagoon, while in Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia), by decree of 1377, it was forbidden for people and goods from infected countries to enter the city until they spent a month on a desert island, cleared of sun and wind .
Later this period passed to 40 days This period of time not only coincides with the ideas of Hippocrates about the turning points in the course of the disease, but also reflects the concepts of spiritual cleansing that appeared in the wilderness during the time of Jesus.
Plague hospitals and leper colony
On the island of Santa Maria di Nazareth in the Venetian lagoon since 1423, the first known marine Quarantine practice station was located. As a plague hospital and leper colony, it was named Lazaretto – probably due to its connection with St. Lazarus Hospital for lepers. Here in 1468, Lazzaretto Nuovo was created to house persons suspected of the disease. Today you can visit his terrible abandoned buildings and imagine the fear and isolation of those who ended up in his dungeons.
Other infirmaries emerged along the Mediterranean coast and were the main form of disease control during the early modern period and the 19th century. For example, in the 1780s, English prison reformer John Howard deliberately joined a Venetian ship with those infected to evaluate life in the infirmary. He reported on his grim findings in the Report on Major Infirmaries in Europe (1789).
Lazzaretto Nuovo was wretched. Howard was placed in a “very dirty room, full of parasites and without a table, chair or bed.” He was soon transferred to Lazzaretto Vecchio, but was again disappointed. He slept on a damp brick floor for six nights before moving into rooms with better visibility, but with a smell “no less disgusting than in a worse hospital.” Having lost his appetite and felt the heat, Howard managed to whitewash the walls, which neutralized the smell and made the rest of his stay bearable.
Meanwhile, in North America, problems were associated with yellow fever and smallpox, and by the early 1700s, all significant ports on the east coast were taking quarantine measures.
The ships were required to remain in the port with a yellow flag until enough time had passed. The effectiveness of such measures is doubtful, since yellow fever spreads from mosquitoes that ignored the restrictions.
With the advent of cholera in the 19th century, the disease was directly linked to the influx of immigrants.
The 1832 British epidemic reached New York, despite ship restrictions. The measures were more successful in 1866 when the Virginia steamer arrived from Liverpool, losing 38 passengers due to cholera en route.
The ship was quarantined in the bay about 20 miles from the city, and a special hospital ship assisted the victims. The outbreak nevertheless occurred on land, but was limited and did not develop into an epidemic.
As the causes of the diseases became better understood, Quarantine practice could be adapted to specific microbes that constitute a threat, but medieval fears persisted. The terrible plague never disappeared, and in 1855 a third pandemic arose in China, which ultimately led to outbreaks on all inhabited continents around the turn of the 20th century.
Demonization of “foreigners”: how anti-Asian prejudices led to quarantine
In the United States, existing anti-Asian prejudices have been fueled by the Chinese origin of the disease. When in 1900, the owner of the forest yard, Wong Chut King, died of the alleged plague in San Francisco, authorities forcibly isolated Chinatown and surrounded the police.
Restrictions were aimed at ethnicity, and not at the likelihood of contact with the disease – white people were allowed to leave while the Chinese were in custody.
Although unjust Quarantine practice was quickly abolished, it represented the main fear of immigration as a source of disease. During the 1890s, an outbreak of typhus on an immigrant ship led to the detention of 1,200 Russian Jews, and at the beginning of the 20th century, new arrivals on Ellis Island faced segregation on suspicion of infection.
Disease control measures, such as vaccines and antibiotics, reduced the focus on quarantine in the 20th century, but people suspected of contagious diseases remained isolated.
Sometimes going hand in hand with draconian laws. Quarantine practice was introduced to limit the effects of SARS in 2003.
Serious measures have been taken with the threat of execution or life imprisonment from the Chinese government to those who spread the virus
It remains to be seen whether the quarantine and isolation measures currently in use against COVID-19 can prevent a global pandemic, but history shows that a balance must be struck between the vital goal of disease prevention and the risk of restricting people’s freedom.