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A pandemic historian warns us all to stop looking to the past


Thirty-three years later became a historian of quarantine for the first time and two years into a pandemic that many of us thought quarantines, social distancing and vaccines would bring to an end a while ago, I found myself in the past week. Before starting a year of long-delayed research at Cambridge University’s Clare Hall, I was asked to spend two days in voluntary isolation, a new protocol amid the thriving Omicron variant. strong. As two days turned to six days — between mailing a PCR test and waiting for the results to be delayed — I kept asking myself the same unending (and tiresome) question: when will it all end? I even got tired of my answer: I really do not know. Not only are historians generally bad at predicting the future, the history of pandemics can only tell us so much about when a pandemic in our modern hyper-connected world could become a pandemic. into history.

Although I’ve been vaccinated three times and taken every precaution to travel as safely as possible, every airport between Detroit and Heathrow is rife with confusion and potential for contagion. People certainly lost patience, in another wave of the endless pandemic, wearing masks (mostly cloth) with their noses open, others bumping into each other without care, and no personal space multiply, let alone 3 to 6 feet. By the time I’m in the car on my way to my new apartment, I’m in a puddle of sweat and anxiety, with the notion of isolation rapidly shifting from an academic subject to a not-so-real reality. comfortable.

As I remained locked in my room, my knowledge of 700 years of quarantine far worse than the knowledge I found myself failed to comfort me. Over the centuries, beginning in 1348 with the quarantine of ships in the port of Venice to combat the Black Death, the whole thrust of public health intervention over smallpox, diphtheria, cholera , flu and many other plagues have boiled down to just catching the infected and keeping them far away. Quarantine islands in the US and abroad in the 20th century were like prisons, with shortages of nurses and doctors, not to mention kindness, warmth or food. Patients there either conquered the bacteria with their own immune systems or died of the infection.

Meanwhile, I have all the conveniences of a modern luxury quarantine: a lovely apartment, personal computer, internet, food delivery, central heating, smartphone and access in every season of Crown (which I’m passionate about), along with almost every other show and movie ever made. Formal isolation, however, especially when so long after it was thought that isolation would be necessary, is horribly isolated. Just 12 hours after moving into my new dig, as dusk turned dark, I had an extremely strong desire to go for a long walk.

Who will know? I thought. It’s so dark, and I’m wearing a mask, so who can recognize me?

The desire to break the rules and get outdoors is an aspect of almost every quarantine I’ve studied. For example, in 1892, the New York Health Commissioner complained to the press about Russian-Jewish immigrant children quarantined for typhus climbing out of windows and out of the fire to play with friends. their friends, capable of spreading a deadly disease and prolonging outbreaks. Locked in for 22 months after first locking myself out from the rest of the world in March 2020, I sympathize with these children, just as I sympathize with the millions of depressed people who are essentially declaring a pandemic for themselves with floating rules designed to keep the spread of Omicron steady. However, that sympathy has worn off quite a bit over the past few weeks of the widely circulated variant of Omicron, which will further prolong the end of the pandemic.

Public health experts say that after the epidemiological curve plummeted from hundreds (or more) cases and deaths per day per 100,000 people to less than 5 cases and deaths per day, for days consecutively, officials will have a pretty good chance of declaring that Covid is no longer a pandemic. But as Omicron continues to swell, we’re not even that close. As long as this virus is widely circulated, and many people in the world remain unvaccinated, many people will get sick and die. Wanting to contribute to the end, I finally obeyed my conscience, gave up walking, locked the door, and went to bed.

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