Thirty-three years later Becoming the first quarantine historian and turning two years into an epidemic that many of us thought quarantine, social distance and vaccines would help end some time ago, I found myself this past week. Before starting a long delayed year of research at Clare Hall of Cambridge University, I had to spend two days in voluntary isolation, a new protocol in the growth of the Omicron variant. As my PCR test mailed and waited for the delayed results to turn six into two days, I kept asking myself an endless (and tedious) question: When will it all end? I was even more tired of my answer: I don’t really know. Not only are historians generally too weak to predict the future, epidemic history can tell us so much about when epidemics could turn into history in our modern, hyper-connected world.
Although I took three vaccinations and took every precaution to travel as safely as possible, each airport between Detroit and Heathrow was full of confusion and potential contagion. Undoubtedly people were impatient, in another wave of endless epidemics, wearing masks with their noses exposed (mainly cloth), others bumping into each other without worry, and there was no private space, let alone 3 to 6 feet away. While I was in the car on my way to my new apartment, I was sweating and anxious, the idea of quarantine quickly shifting from an academic subject to an uncomfortable reality.
Since I was locked in my room, my knowledge of 700 years of quarantine failed to comfort me. For centuries, Black Death prevention began in 1348 with the separation of ships at the port of Venice, with little more than the full force of public health intervention for smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, influenza and many other epidemics. Capture the infected and keep them away. In the twentieth century, quarantine islands in the United States and abroad were like prisons, with no shortage of nurses and doctors, no mention of kindness, warmth, or food. Patients there either conquer the virus with their own immune systems or die from the infection.
Meanwhile, I had all the benefits of a luxurious modern quarantine: a nice apartment, personal computing, internet, food supply, central heating, a smartphone and access to each season. The crown (Which I binged), with almost every other show and movie. Nonetheless, being formally isolated, especially when it would require a thought-provoking isolation after a long time, is good, terribly isolated. Just 12 hours after moving to my new digs, when the evening turned dark, I had an incredibly strong desire for a long walk.
Who knows? I think. It’s so dark, and I’m wearing a mask, so who will be able to recognize me?
The desire to break the rules and go out is an aspect of almost every quarantine I study. In 1892, for example, the New York Commissioner of Health complained to the Press about how Russian immigrant Jewish children, separated by typhoid fever, were fleeing windows and fires to play with their friends, spreading a potentially deadly disease and prolonging the outbreak. In March 2020, 22 months after I first shut myself off from the rest of the world, I express my sympathy for these children, just as I have some sympathy for the millions of tired people who are basically declaring an epidemic on themselves designed to reinforce the spread of Omicron. To break the rules. Yet, that sympathy has faded over the last few weeks of the widely circulated Omicron variant, which will continue to prolong the end of the epidemic.
Public health experts believe that since the epidemic curve has dropped to more than 100 (or more) cases per 100,000 people and less than 5 cases per day and deaths, over the next few days, officials will have a good chance of declaring covid. No more epidemics. But as Omicron continues to swell, we are not even close to it. Until the virus spreads widely, and many people around the world remain unvaccinated, more and more people will become ill and die. Trying to finally contribute, I finally listened to my conscience and gave up my walk, locked the door and went to bed.