Why is this interesting? - The Quarantine Edition

On the origin of quarantine, the forgotten pandemic, and learning from history

Anita here. Unless you’re on the harrowing frontlines as a doctor or delivery person, chances are that you’ve lived your professional, social, and personal life under one roof for the past month or so.

Whether that roof sits atop a Drake-like megamansion or a Manhattan studio apartment, we’re all living under the rules of 21st-century quarantine. Don't leave the house except for essential purchases like food or medicine, or in some states, weed. Cover up if you have to go out, donning mask and gloves to protect yourself from the virus that could give you anything from a mild cough to deadly lung failure. Stay inside, sew masks, watch Netflix, teach your kids, and work on maintaining your sanity.

As uniquely devastating as this moment feels, we're not the first to experience mass quarantine. The word quarantine itself originated from the 14th century pandemic of the Black Death, an awful bacterial disease known as the bubonic plague that wiped out at least 50 million people across Europe and Asia. 

The prevailing medical philosophy in the Middle Ages had more to do with bloodletting and humors than bacteria and hygiene, but it was quickly diagnosed that breathing the same “corrupted air” as someone with the plague could be a death sentence. The various city-states that now make up Italy responded with an unprecedented set of public health measures. Venice kept visiting ships offshore for 30 days (a trentino), a period that was later increased to 40 days, or quarantothe origin of the term “quarantine”. By the 15th century, municipalities in Italy created plague boards that communicated with each other to coordinate public health efforts around diseases, locking down citizens, livestock, and goods to prevent the spread of infection. 

Since then, quarantines have been a powerful tool to contain epidemics.

In 1918, the world was smacked with a very similar pandemic, known as the Spanish flu. The response to that virus was hauntingly familiar—complete with empty streets, closed schools, home-made masks, and an overwhelmed medical system.

Noah Y. Kim dug up writings from the 1918 epidemic and quarantine for The Atlantic and wrote:

Reading through newspaper articles and diaries written during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I felt an eerie flash of recognition. The dark jokes, anxious gossip, and breathless speculation reminded me of scrolling through Twitter over the past few weeks, watching people wrestle with life under quarantine by memeing through the crisis. 

Seattle Times Front Page in October 2018, Courtesy Seattle Times

Like today, the quarantine had its critics and procrastinators. Philadelphia defiantly continued with a big public parade in the face of the pandemic and suffered the consequences.  

Courtesy New York Times

Although economic harm is one of the main criticisms of extended quarantine, the 1918 flu demonstrates that there was a longer-term positive economic impact of quarantining early. According to a study by the Federal Reserve and MIT, cities that were less aggressive saw a “sharp and persistent decline in economic activity,’ whereas those that were engaged in quarantine earlier and more aggressively were able to bounce back more quickly. The Roaring Twenties, right after the Spanish Flu, was an era of great economic expansion.

Laura Spinney notes in her 2018 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World that the Spanish flu made starkly clear an epidemic’s impact on a national level, and subsequently influenced the rise in nationalized health care in Europe and the systematization of collecting health data.

Why is this interesting?

In looking back at the history of quarantine, I gain comfort knowing that we are not an anomaly. If we learn from our history, we will grow better from it. 

But the 1918 flu and quarantine was buried in history by two world wars and a depression, and nearly forgotten—despite killing more people than World War I. I did a quick Google Trends search, and this past month is the first time that searches for the Spanish Flu (red) has surpassed searches for World War I (blue). Even the Black Death, a pandemic from seven hundred years ago, was more searched than the Spanish flu—until now.

It’s not hard to understand why we’ve forgotten this historical moment. Overshadowed by the dramas of two world wars, the Spanish flu warrants barely a mention on the Wikipedia American history page. The Smithsonian notes that there’s little literature about the 1918 flu. Wikipedia lists almost 200 World War I movies, whereas my Internet sleuthing only dug up a handful of films about the 1918 flu. An invisible virus doesn’t lend itself to the kind of visual displays of courage that make movies like last year’s 1917 a blockbuster. 

With little collective historical memory of the Spanish flu, it’s no wonder we experience this moment as unique and unprecedented. It’s as if we have never been through this type of global trauma before. Laura Spinney writes, “The Spanish flu is remembered personally, not collectively. Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.” Not only was the pandemic overshadowed by war, but the very nature of quarantine and illness is also of isolation, and there were few avenues for people to connect and create an aggregate experience.

And so one can’t help but wonder which path our historical memory will take this time. In contrast to 1918, we have countless ways to connect with each other in quarantine and document what we’re going through, and we’re not in the midst of world war. While there’s no denying the radical shifts in technology that allow us to capture this moment, you also don’t have to look back more than a few years, or even months, to see how easily we move on from momentous news cycles. 

If history teaches us one thing it’s that we aren’t the ones who decide how it will be written a century from now. But if we can properly memorialize the pains of this pandemic—the illness, the isolation, the successes, and the failures—we can be more effective in bringing history to bear on the future. (ASVV)

Chart of the Day:

A century ago this is how disease charts were drawn, on graph paper. What surprises me about this one is the mortality rate of single women under 45 is so much lower than married women under the age of 45. (ASVV)

Courtesy New York Times

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Anita Schillhorn van Veen (ASVV)


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