A Look at History- The Importance of Effective Quarantine

by Julia Robins ’20

Despite the shutdown of schools and restaurants, the coronavirus is only spreading further exponentially. Looking at Maryland alone, as of March 18, there are a total of 85 cases in Maryland- on Monday there were only 37. This exponential rise in cases is typical historically with a pandemic. The only proven way for pandemics to end is quarantine and isolation.

Most known, the idea of quarantine and isolation originated in London, during the Black Death (1347) and the Great Plague of London (1665). The Black Death took the highest death toll of any pandemic, wiping out 30-50 percent of Europe’s population. They had the smart idea to lock and barricade everyone away who had it until they were no longer sick. In Venice in 1370, they kept sailors on their ships for 40 days before mingling with the public–this became known as quarantinario, from the Italian word for 40. By 1500, England signed laws stating that if one was sick, their house was marked by a red cross on the door or a stockpile of hay. If one had an infected family member and went out, they had to carry a white pole. Without any medicine or advancement in technology or science, those ended. A virus spreads if there is interaction of people- if there is nobody for the infected to contaminate, it is over. 

In U.S. History, looking at the Spanish Flu of 1918, proved most recently the importance of effective quarantine–Philadelphia, in particular. Ignoring warnings from the military, the city threw a war parade of 200,000 people crammed together. Three days later every single bed in all 31 hospitals were filled with sick victims of that flu, and over 12,000 died in just Philly alone. But looking at St. Louis, on the other hand, with almost the same population and closed everything, there were only 1,703 deaths. Yes, there eventually became a vaccine, but the numbers are astonishingly different when looking at quarantine and not. 

So why does the count of coronavirus keep rising in Maryland even with social gatherings closed? Mainly the reason being that people are going outside in society anyway, catching it from somebody who is ill and doesn’t know it (due to a lack of efficient testing) or from somebody who has it and does not realize the repercussions. Despite great fear in society and its devastating effects on the economy, we know from looking at history that the coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) is NOT the end of the world, and humanity will recover. There have been 20 pandemics in history, and even when there is no cure, no medicine, it still ended and people survived. A vaccine or cure is not expected to arrive by the CDC until at least next year, and the vast majority of diseases do not have any proven medicine. The count will keep rising until people isolate themselves, regardless if they have it or not. 

During the black death in 1665, Cambridge University sent its students home, including Sir Isaac Newton, who sat under an apple tree the following month and discovered gravity. Who knows? While in quarantine at home, you, too, could make a fundamental discovery!