We are under (self) quarantine now. If you are not yet, you will be soon. In some places it is still voluntary. In other places, it is compelled with force. Today, India declared a nation-wide public curfew on 1.3 billion people. This was preceded a month ago by the unprecedented lockdown on 60 million people at the epicenter of the outbreak in Hubei, China, making for the largest quarantine in history. Germany, where I live, has tightened restrictions on movement, and is approaching a full quarantine. But here, because of its history, it’s hard for the Federal Republic to curtail free movement or require Germans to show their papers when they leave the house. Everywhere, life is moving inside.
No one knows how long this will go on. It is a time of great uncertainty. The future is a mirage that changes with each news story, with each new epidemiological model, with each day’s reported cases. The graphs and figures have started to swim before my eyes as I scroll through the news. The numbers grow so fast. I have to ask myself, am I seeing things (right)?
We use different words to describe what we’re doing in response: social distancing, closures, curfew, shelter-in-place, lockdown. It’s quarantine by other names.
Quarantine is an old word. It was, we thought, a medieval concept. It goes along with other distant yet vividly horrifying events from that era, like the plague and the Inquisition and other desperate practices devised to feel around in the dark. Quarantine hasn’t had much use in our enlightened times of modern medicine, germ theory, and antibiotics. I never thought I’d experience it in my lifetime. It’s such a low-tech approach, almost too simple to be true: the combination of isolation and time. And yet, as we’re finding out, it’s really hard to do.
Yet Europe, and the world, has been doing this for millenia. The word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta, for 40. That was the length of the period of isolation imposed by fourteenth-century Venetian officials on ships suspected of carrying pestilence from the East. These ships, laden with the marble, jewels, and spices that made Venice one of the richest places in the world, bobbed in the harbor, waiting for time to pass. Only time would bring an end, an absolution.
Some of the ships that did harbor disease must have become ghost ships over those 40 days, filled with corpses by the end. On other ships, the sailors never fell ill. They came ashore, and life moved on. Either way, the goods were then transported overland through Europe to the banquet tables of European nobility. Pepper, one of the most valuable commodities to reach these tables, was also used in pomanders – bags containing fragrant herbs – worn to ward off the plague. Those terrifying plague masks worn by European doctors to treat victims of bubonic plague were stuffed in the beak with spices like rose, mint, cloves, and myrrh. The spices were thought to block the infectious agent: miasma, or noxious air. Spices that might at some point have been imported from those quarantined ships.
We only have these historical references: medieval plagues and their staggering death tolls. More recently, images of tents filled with beds spaced some two meters apart during the 1918 influenza pandemic. We are all asking ourselves what this one will be like for us. I’m only seven days into my self-quarantine. 40 seems like a very long time.
Why 40 days? Forty days must have been long enough for everyone to die, or fully recover. Medieval man didn’t know what caused it, but they must have known, from hard-won experience, that 40 days was long enough for whatever diabolical agent it was that was wrecking the havoc to burn out. At the end of 40 days comes an absolution: you have died, or you have survived and are free.
40 days also conjures Jesus’ trials in the desert described in Luke 4:1-2. It was here, on the Mount of Temptation (which is also known as Mount Quarantina, or in Arabic, Jabal al-Qarantal) that Jesus famously fasted for 40 days and resisted three temptations from the devil. This is another hint. The Catholic Lent also goes on for 40 days, mirroring Jesus’s trials in the desert. Maybe this is where the timeline comes from: 40 days is long enough to become a trial. You either succumb, or succeed.
The temptation here is to stray outside of quarantine. As I write this morning, it is a beautiful sunny day. One of those first days of spring, when, under normal circumstances, the parks would be full, and the cities would teem with families and friends meeting over coffee or just taking a walk together. These are now potentially fatal temptations. If not for you, then for someone else you might not even know. Just because you can’t see or feel the threat doesn’t mean it’s not real. Even medieval man understood that.
Still, it is unimaginable how we will be able, as a society, much less as a global society, to let 40 days or more pass us by. As we learn more about the logarithmic certainty of this virus’ spread, we are learning to see this as a necessary trial. It is our challenge and our responsibility to do everything we can to withstand it.
One thing, if nothing else, is sure: for now, we will be at home. In our own four walls. Deeper still in the word quarantine, at the base of 40, is the word quattuor, for 4. The irony of our essential, unmitigated interconnectedness is that in order to survive, we have to put up walls to each other on all sides, and keep them there. Until this passes.
And this too will pass. Life will go on for most, not quite the same as it did, but probably close enough. My hope is that when this is all over, we are all still willing to take down the four walls we’ve had to erect around ourselves. Our quarantine will only be over if we reemerge and stand outside of these walls together.