The New York Times had an interesting piece on Friday about how the coronavirus is spurring a “new” approach to dealing with disease — “new” in the sense that it is different from how the modern world has handled disease over the past few decades, but really not new at all in that it harkens back to the methods used in medieval times. The “new” approach is called the quarantine.
As the Times article points out, the quarantine is a disease control method that’s as old as time. During the medieval period, when the spread of disease wasn’t understood from a scientific standpoint, authorities still had techniques they used during a health crisis: they fought the spread of the Black Plague by closing borders, quarantining sick people on ships and in pest houses, and heading out of the cities into the countryside to get away from the sick zones. That method of dealing with the spread of disease lasted for centuries.
After advances in science and medicine, the invention of the microscope, and the development of ways of discovering, and treating, diseases and viruses, the approach to public health changed. The Times article reports that the last time the U.S. government, for example, imposed a national restriction on entry into the country was in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison ordered that ships from Hamburg be kept offshore for 20 days because Hamburg had lied about a cholera epidemic. Since then, the U.S. has adopted the “modern” approach, which involves accepting the spread of the disease and trying to deal with it through antibiotics, vaccines, and other forms of treatment.
With the coronavirus, the Trump Administration has combined the “modern” approach with the “medieval” approach. The Administration imposed a very early ban on entry into the country by non-citizens from China and discouraging travel to China, and over the weekend President Trump announced additional restrictions on travel to areas where new outbreaks have occurred: Iran, and specific areas of South Korea and Italy. And, as the Times article points out, these restrictions seem to have worked. Although there are coronavirus cases reported in the U.S., the incidence rate is far below what some other countries have experienced, and the travel restrictions gave the country time to prepare for the virus.
When it comes to dealing with communicable disease. harsh measures are sometimes necessary, and time is frequently of the essence. If travel bans and quarantines help public health officials, I’m all in favor of going a bit “medieval” in response to the coronavirus.