The author is Assistant Professor of Japanese History at Columbia University
Until recently, I was hopeful that the travel ban imposed last year in response to the Covid pandemic would be quickly reversed. But since the discovery of the Omicron variant, the prospects for international travel seem increasingly uncertain.
Understanding a future of successive virus strains helps to look to the past. Two hundred years ago, cordon sanitaire was the world’s first international travel bubble. This network of permanent quarantine stations is designed to protect Europe from infectious diseases circulating in Africa and Asia. Every traveler entering from these continents had to be quarantined for up to a month at designated ports along the Mediterranean coastline, either on board the ship in port or in a purpose-built hospital (quarantine hotel).
Many 19th-century quarantine protocols seem exotic to us. Like Alex Chase-Levenson’s book, The Yellow Flag, make it clear, in place of hand sanitizer, coins, letters and even people were dipped in vinegar to cleanse them of plague. At one time it was common for travelers to be “smoked” – stripped naked and locked in a room with burning herbs until they came close to suffocation. Yet the history of Europe’s cordon sanitary offers useful lessons.
The first is worrying: the quarantine protocol has lasted for more than 50 years since the late 18th century, with rules becoming more stringent and more extensive. It foretells ominous. The second is that the cordon had the effect of cutting the world into separate zones, depending on how well countries were considered to manage public health. Ironically, this time it is more likely that Europe will be branded as the sick zone and Asia the clean one. While most Western countries have only shown signs of slowing its spread, those in the Asia-Pacific have proved much more successful at suppressing virus strains. China, which has the world’s strictest quarantine controls, has barely reopened its borders. When Omicron was first discovered, Japan – which had just started reopening after the Delta variant was suppressed – slammed the gates again.
Third, 19th-century quarantine rules were non-negotiable and mandatory: whether crammed into a private suite or a communal cell, no one could buy their way. Unlike now, there were no stricter requirements for non-citizens. Compared to these double standards, the strictures of the lazarettos looks positively lit.
A fourth lesson is more encouraging. European governments have worked closely together to enforce the cordon sanitaire. The health councils in different port cities coordinated with each other and diplomatic consuls regularly inspected quarantine facilities. Even at the height of the Napoleonic War, the British navy borrowed ships to serve as floating service. lazarettos for French troops returning from Egypt. The cordon probably helped create the world’s first international public health organization.
Now, the world needs this kind of cooperation. The World Health Organization plays a valuable role in the aggregation of scientific research, but has no enforcement powers, so its guidelines are toothless and its long-standing policy against travel bans is widely ignored. Attempts to establish travel bubbles were largely carried out on a bilateral basis, with East Asian governments being particularly reluctant to open travel corridors. But if even Britain and Napoleonic France could unite to fight bubonic plague, surely Japan and China could look beyond their own differences of opinion?
Standardization of quarantine protocols could help create a common Covid-free zone that encompasses large parts of East Asia and the Pacific. It can also lead the way to a fairer quarantine policy that does not discriminate on the basis of nationality. Given a virus that will continue to mutate aggressively, this may be just the least bad option.