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Quarantine: A History of Success

A look at history shows that quarantine can save lives – but it must be done right.

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If we look at the history of pandemics and fighting diseases, there may be one or two lessons we can learn. Some of the responses to threats like the Black Death just didn’t work, but they may be just the thing to apply right now.

We can look at the history of pandemics and explore some of the mysteries and oddities that surrounded them in the hopes of casting some light on today’s issue.

When we think of the Black Death, we often associate it with a pestilence that swept Europe from around 1347 and went on to kill a third of all Europeans. But the roots go back much earlier. In fact, already by 1340, people had heard of a terrible plague ravaging such far-flung places as China, Egypt, and Syria. It was in October of 1347 that it first arrived on European shores aboard a dozen ships docking at Messina in Sicily.

The people of the day knew that there was a deadly plague in foreign lands, but they didn’t understand that such a thing could be transmitted. It’s estimated that China, with its enormous population, lost 50% of all its people.

But these Europeans did not have the modern knowledge we have today. They didn’t know, or couldn’t understand, that by closing their ports, they could have prevented the loss of 20 million lives.

When the boats arrived, they found dead and dying sailors, covered in black boils. The port authorities ordered the ships to be taken out of the harbor, but sadly it was far too late. Within six months, it had reached London, Bordeaux, and much of the continent.

Centuries earlier, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, had written on the subject of plagues spreading and what one should do about them. He wrote: “Cito, Longe, Tarde,” which translates to “Leave quickly, go far away and come back slowly.” Wise words, indeed.

With this particular type of coronavirus today, closed borders would seem to stop the disease from spreading. We should be wary not to make the initial mistake of the Sicilians.

In 1348, authorities in Venice decided to take action and began stopping ships coming in from ports where they suspected the plague existed. They closed the city waters, and all crafts that came in were subject to a 40-day isolation period … this is actually where we get the word “quarantine” from, the Italian for 40, “quaranta.” But it was already far too late. The disease was in, and the toll was devastating to the region.

However, across much of Europe, these lessons were learned. In some places where they imposed harsh measures, isolation, and limiting travel, the disease passed quickly; others were not so lucky.

The disease ran its course, leaving a third of all Europeans dead, but the survivors were perhaps a little wiser.

More than 200 years later, in 1665, the plague came back in force in London. Forewarned is forearmed, and King Charles the Second and his government swiftly left the city, leaving orders that those who were sick were to be quarantined, bodies were to be burned, and all public gatherings to be shut down. Cities across the nation closed down access, blocked all trade, and waited.

Several other cities were infected, some to a devastating degree, but despite London losing 15% of its population (almost 100,000 people), the cold weather came and with it the end of the spread. If they had not taken the actions of shutting down whole cities, and in Scotland’s case, an entire border, who knows how far the disease would have gone.

The main lesson we can take away from this is that when you need to act, act fast and act effectively. As far as we know right now, COVID-19 is not as deadly as the plague. Yes, some have died, and likely many more will be infected before it runs its course, but it’s no Black Death. We don’t need to panic – but we do need to take heed of history.

Mark Angelides

Mark Angelides is Managing Editor of Liberty and Hailing from the UK, he specializes in EU politics and provides a conservative/libertarian voice on all things from across the pond. During the Brexit Referendum campaign, Mark worked to promote activism, spread the message and secure victory. He is the editor and publisher of several books on Ancient Chinese poetry.

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