The concept and practice are ancient: isolating people to stop the spread of infections they could be carrying. Before antibiotics and so-called super-drugs, the quarantine was almost the only deterrent to illnesses running amok.
But in language terms, quarantine has no medical or recuperative root. It derives from the Latin “quadraginta” and the subsequent Italian “quaranta” and “quarantina”, all of which reference the number 40. In that sense, it’s worth noting that in the New Testament story of the temptation of Christ, the time he spent in the wilderness away from other people was 40 days and 40 nights. This was a “quarantine” of an altogether different kind, a spell in the Judaean desert during which he was tried and tempted by Satan.
Those around the world who have contracted the coronavirus and been placed in quarantine must feel much the same: cut off from others, plunged into an unfamiliar environment, beset by a trying and frightening foe and tempted alternately by soaring hope and deep despair.
Closing the town
Quarantine has always provoked fear. A poignant example from the current virus outbreak is the interview Wang Wenjun, 33, gave to the British Broadcasting Corporation. A resident of Wuhan, the city at the centre of the coronavirus, she said, “If we follow the government’s guidelines, the only place we can go now is to those quarantine points. But if we went, what happened to my uncle [who died in quarantine] would then happen to dad. So we’d rather die at home.”
The physical, emotional and psychological traumas of quarantine are captured to claustrophobic effect in Albert Camus’ The Plague (La Peste, 1947). At the end of Part One, here is how Camus describes the town being quarantined:
“Then, all of a sudden, the figure shot up again, vertically. On the day when the death-toll touched thirty, Dr Rieux read an official telegram which the Prefect had just handed him, remarking, ‘So they’ve got alarmed – at last.’ The telegram ran: Proclaim a state of plague Stop close the town.”
Closely following in the opening sections of Part Two, the reader sees:
“Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and – together with fear – the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.”
Exile, being cast out: that has always been the fate of those stricken by illness and disease, incurable or not. Medical advances in the 20th and 21st centuries meant that such ejection and isolation from the community of your peers was applied only in extreme instances. The anguish is terrible, as Camus’ narrator, Dr Rieux, attests:
“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile … It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile – that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”
The town, Oran, and its people survive. As they celebrate the lifting of the plague and of their exiling quarantine, Rieux reflects:
“He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learnt from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; … and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city.”
As the world looks in hope to the moment the coronavirus is contained, ebbs and dies away, that last thought is a reminder that life and happiness are fleeting and that a happy city can turn to one of grief in an instant.