By Olivia Durand

(Suggestion by Dr Maria Hadjiathanasiou)


Lockdown, which one-third of the world is currently experiencing, is nothing new. Lockdown is a form of quarantine, a practise used to try to stem the spread of disease for hundreds of years by controlling humans. They were particularly common in ports in the age of commerce and empire: when humans gathered and traded in new environments, diseases often flourished.

Quarantine stations therefore quickly became a permanent feature of ports, although they differed in duration and practice – in a ship, a quarantine station, or the isolation of a whole neighbourhood. All new arrivals were isolated no matter whether there were rumours of diseases or not – a necessary evil, as no one knew when the next epidemic would strike.

But these measures failed to prevent the outbreak of immensely deadly epidemics because until the late 19th century there was little understanding of how different diseases spread. Such enforced detention of individuals and the sweeping powers allocated to governments made many people uneasy: in times of health and prosperity, quarantines were increasingly seen as an excuse for state intervention, and condemned as “instruments of despotism”.

A quarantine examination on a ship in Egypt, 1883.
© Wellcome Collection, CC BY

‘Incalculable injury to the trade’

This critique was particularly acute among merchants, who framed quarantines as conservative institutions impeding a growing international trade – itself bolstered by the steam revolution, industrialisation, and colonial ventures.

The shores of the Black Sea, for example, were known as a hotbed for epidemics, being regularly assailed by outbreaks of the plague and cholera. Yet, in 1837, reflecting on the numerous epidemics that had claimed up to a tenth of the population, the British consul to Odessa nonetheless noted: “The real and ostensible evil has been the necessity for restraints to intercourse and business.”

Local quarantine laws were eventually reduced and even temporarily revoked after the Crimean War. Yet these changes had more to do with Russia’s modernising economy than with health policies. For this reason, quarantine was regularly restored as a means for protectionism and bargain, much to the dismay of Odessa’s traders: “The [re]establishment of the quarantine in the Ports of Southern Russia has more a political than a sanitary goal.”

Crimean War: quarantine cemetery and church, 1856.
© Wellcome Collection, CC BY

As medicine and sanitation improved, many countries viewed quarantines like remnants of conservative commercial practices. Technological advancement, such as the development of telegraph lines, also generalised the idea that news from incoming epidemics could be received earlier, and better averted and monitored through prediction rather than prevention […]

Read more at source


Source: Quarantine used to be a normal part of life – and wasn’t much liked then, either