Every day the news about the coronavirus (now officially known as COVID-19) becomes more concerning. Stories proliferate of people trapped in tiny cruise-ship rooms, sequestered for two weeks on army bases, and enduring other restrictive rules in the hopes of stopping the spread of this disease. Of particular note is what is happening in China, ground zero for the virus. I really stopped and took notice when I read that nearly half the country is being subjected to some form of quarantine. In a country with the enormous population of China, these measures affect an astounding 760 million people.
Quarantining has been in existence for millennia. The word itself originated in the early 1600s in Italy, specifically Venice, and comes from the root word for forty. Why forty? Because quarantining originally lasted for a period of 40 days to ensure eliminating the spread of any possible contagion.
Why did Venice and Italy create this word? To specifically contain the spread of the plague that periodically ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the 14th century, a third of Europe’s entire population, approximately 25 million people, succumbed to the Black Death, which also devastated Asia, where it was known as “the Great Pestilence.” Scientists now know that the plague’s infectious period lasts for 37 days, so clearly the Venetian Senate in the 16th century was on to something when they changed the initial quarantine period from 30 to 40 days.
However, quarantining goes back much further, to Biblical times, as mentioned in Leviticus 13, which seemed to apply specifically for containing leprosy, and thus throughout human history has been a method of attempting to contain disease. (There is even an official journal dedicated to the topic, Historia Sanitaria.)
Venice also pioneered the use of lazarets, so named because in 1423 the government began quarantining maritime passengers on the nearby lagoon island of Santa Maria di Nazareth, which became known as Lazaretto Vecchio (the old hospital island, named after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers) because it housed real and suspected cases of both plague and leprosy. In 1468, Venice opened a new quarantine center, an island that became known as Lazaretto Nuovo. Poveglia is another former plague hospital island in the Venetian lagoon, which operated from 1793-1814, later becoming infamous as a mental hospital, and now entirely closed to the public. (Laura Morelli wrote a great historical novel that describes what it was like to be in a plague outbreak and subsequently quarantined on one of these islands, The Painter’s Apprentice.)
Thankfully in the present time we have access to science and do not believe that the spread of diseases like the coronavirus, leprosy, or ebola are due to “God’s will.” However, ethical and moral issues still abound, with a mighty struggle to balance individual rights and freedoms with the health of the larger population, which in today’s era of global travel potentially means the entire world. Quarantining, a word with a rich and ancient history, is still relevant, and we would be wise to study the past to judiciously apply best practices and lessons to the present.