Spring 2020 arrived with a looming sense of urgency in the air. The coronavirus is officially a global pandemic. The first case in the United States was confirmed in Seattle in late January, but weeks of frustrating state and federal red-tape and mixed messages from the White House delayed widespread testing for Covid-19. Critical time was lost. After publicly refusing to accept any responsibility for the delays, the President finally declare a national emergency on March 13. In the vacuum, leadership and action came instead from governors, mayors, and health experts working to contain and mitigate the spiking health crisis in their states. Like a wildfire racing across a Kansas prairie, the coronavirus pandemic quickly forced American’s to adjust to a new and unsettling reality—self-quarantine and sheltering in place.
While fear of contagion separates us socially, it is uniting us in unanticipated ways. Globally and locally, we connect with friends and family via email, text messaging, Twitter, Instagram, Marco Polo videos, FaceTime and YouTube. Teachers conduct classes remotely via Skype, Zoom and emails. Restaurants and bars under lockdown offer take-out menus and home delivery. With libraries closed, E-book downloads have skyrocketed. Museums temporarily shuttered offer virtual tours of their collections. National Geographic offers educational activities families can do together while sheltering in place.
When we must venture out to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy, social distancing—keeping a distance of 6-feet to avoid person-to-person contact— is critical in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Especially vulnerable are those over 60, and anyone with a respiratory condition or compromised immune system. Children and young adults should also shelter in place. If exposed to the coronavirus in large gatherings, they risk transmitting the disease to grandparents and vulnerable family members at home.
Last week, Kit and I decided to shelter in place at Boomerang Creek. As I began thinking about my third column on the coronavirus pandemic, I searched the word “quarantine” and found “A Short History of Quarantine” by Peter Tyson from a PBS NOVA program (10/11/2004). Defined as “the separation of the diseased from the healthy,” the practice of quarantining populations has been around for a long time. Rules for isolating lepers existed as early as the writing of the Old Testament.
According to the NOVA program, the word “quarantine” took on new meaning in 1348 AD during the Black Death—a plague epidemic that eventually killed 14-15 million people across Europe, up to one-fifth or more of the population. To combat the spread of the epidemic, Venice established the world’s first institutionalized system of quarantine, giving a council the power to detain ships, cargoes, and individuals in the Venetian lagoon for up to 40 days. (“Quarantine” comes from the Latin for forty.”)
“The Venetian model,” the author’s timeline demonstrated, “held sway until the discovery in the late 1800s that germs cause disease, after which health officials began tailoring quarantines with individual microbes in mind. In the mid-20th century, the advent of antibiotics and routine vaccinations made large-scale quarantines a thing of the past, but today bioterrorism and newly emergent diseases like SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] threatened to resurrect the age-old custom, potentially on the scale of entire cities.”
Today as the world grapples with a global pandemic, it’s instructive to revisit the SARS outbreak that occurred in Asia and Canada in the spring of 2003. The 2004 NOVA program noted “Officials credit the use of both isolation (for those sick with SARS) and quarantine (for those exposed to the sick) with forestalling an even more severe epidemic.” History strongly suggests that self-quarantining and staying at home can help flatten the curve of today’s deadly coronavirus pandemic spread.
Canadian writer Louise Penny—author of the award-winning Inspector Gamache Mystery series—is presently self-quarantining at her home in the small town of Knowlton, located south of Montreal near Canada’s border with Vermont. When returning from NYC recently, she was advised by the Canadian border patrol to self-quarantine for two weeks.
A week after sheltering in place, Penny shared this uplifting message. “Good morning you! Hope you slept well, though I know it’s such an anxious time. My heart goes out to those with children, the elderly, especially those alone, in isolation. And all the people whose jobs are in peril. This feels so weird, doesn’t it? Unreal. But know you are not alone. We’re in this together. No more borders. No more distinctions. We’re on this voyage together.”
Reporting from Boomerang Creek. Stay safe everyone.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.