Feeling Freud: Psychoanalysis of Quarantine and Isolation during pandemics

By Jon Joey Telebrico

Next Page

  1. Introduction

Physician George Price described the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as both “destroyer and teacher.” Quite true to this characterization, the global spread of influenza simultaneously brought upon much suffering and opportunity to redefine public health as humanity had known it. When public health officials were able to identify that transmission was primarily through droplets diffused by sneezing and coughing, they concluded that one of the most effective ways to interrupt a chain of infection was through a method of isolation. 

Thus, an unprecedented outpouring of support—both financially and socially—of such measures was observed. For example, the Bureau of Yards and Docks authorized $21,000 to the Naval Station at Mare Island, California, “for additional temporary isolation quarters for influenza cases.” However, despite the widespread support for isolation, authorities seemed divided on both the actual practicality of the measure as well as determinations about which populations to quarantine. Lt. Saurman wrote that “[i]n a disease so markedly contagious that some authorities regard quarantine as practically useless it becomes imperative to isolate not only the diagnosed cases, but if any degree of success in the control of spread of the disease is to be accomplished, the suspects as well.” 

While the military ramped up support for additional quarters to isolate large swathes of one of the most vulnerable populations to become carriers of the viral H1N1 pathogen, other health authorities were often tasked with how to deal with individual cases. One Massachusetts physician described quite extremely how to go about this isolation, electing to “put each diseased person in a diver’s suit and provide him with a pair of handcuffs.” Indeed, this extremely violent image of pure isolation, regardless of the extent of its seriousness, raises numerous questions—both about the treatment of people infected with sickness and the ensuring effects afterwards. 

This section will be an attempt to engage with the latter of these two concerns, exploring the deleterious effects of remaining in prolonged periods of isolation without the constant human contact that modern human society had fashioned as one of its characteristics. While physicians primarily looked for symptoms affecting physical health, there appears to be a lack of existing literature focused on how such public health measures affected the mental and psychological states of those subjected to it. Therefore, the present paper will utilize the works of Sigmund Freud and apply it to endemic diseases throughout history in order to better understand the extent to which the psyche, ego, and mind were affected by the aforementioned measures of quarantine and isolation.

Table of Contents