By Makenna Mahrer

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History of Quarantining

We are by now woefully familiar with the realities of quarantine, and though the wide reaching effects of such activity have not been felt on a global scale in decades, the human spirit in captivity has not changed. Neither, on its basic level, has the protocol since it was first established as a formal practice during the Black Death. The term quarantine was derived from the medieval practice of quarantining sailors for 40 days prior to arriving at port to prevent the spread of the plague, in italian referred to as quaranta giorni and which later was termed quarantino, giving rise to the english proper quarantine in use today. Prior to formal quarantines, however, society made use of the concept of “isolation”, a form of separation of the sick or exposed in order to protect a healthy population As a concept, pure isolation is conducted without the technical knowledge of a formal transmission vector for any given disease. As the science did not yet exist to explain the concept of an incubation period, the section of time during which a particular disease can develop and be spread by a host, isolation applied only to the sick and took no note of potential exposure. In the context of today, isolation would occur if only symptomatic COVID patients were separated from the general population, while quarantines necessitate that anyone in contact with those infected also be isolated to stop the spread, given their viral potentials within the incubation period of 14 days.


The earliest records of isolation practices come from the book of Leviticus, which makes mention of various protocols in response to leprosy that separate the afflicted individual for a period of seven days :


But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the sore seven days. 5 And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore appears to be as it was, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him another seven days. 6 Then the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore has faded, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean;  (Leviticus 13)


Such practices are also mentioned by classical Greek academics Hippocrates, Thucydides, and Galen. Emperor Justinian I put these notions into practice in the 6th century when an early iteration of the bubonic plague swept through Constantinople. Among other things, willful discrimination against minority groups in the region led to a de jure quarantine of sorts.  


As mentioned previously, true quarantines found their start in the Middle Ages with the advent of the Black Death. Burning clothes and leaving sick patients in fields to recover or die were common practice, but the most notable activity was the active sequestration of exposed individuals: 


If the searcher determined that a person had indeed died of plague, authorities would quarantine the rest of the victim’s family, locking them in their home, which often meant that they would also contract the disease and die. 

This form of quarantining meant that any form of exposure could be equated to almost certain death, or by some miracle a shocking recovery. This practice also led to the creation of lazarets, the very first and namesake being the island of Lazaretto Vecchio. These quarantine colonies served as spaces to which infected patients could be confined for the duration of their illness.  

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