By May 3, India will have been in lockdown for 41 days. It isn’t the first time that people have been kept isolated to prevent the spread of a disease. There are mentions of it in the Bible, and in a Persian medical encyclopedia from 1025 – both to contain leprosy. And when the plague hit Europe in the 1340s, wiping out more than half the population, it marked the first formal measure to separate the infected, rather than banish sick people to the fields to die.
The first isolation stations were along the coast of Dubrovnik, the setting for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones, which was controlled by Venetians in 1377. This is where ships arriving from plague-affected ports had to follow ‘trentino’, a 30-day wait to ensure passengers and cargo were uncontaminated and trade could resume.
Other European cities adopted the practice. But the cooling-off period was eventually extended to 40 days, probably to allow time for the bacteria to die out. The term changed from trentino to quarantine – from quaranta, Italian for 40.
Quarantines proved so effective, many cities built dedicated isolation hospitals at their ports. They called them lazaretto (from Lazarus, the biblical character who came back from the dead). But then, as now, isolation systems were complicated and classist. Alex Chase-Levenson’s book The Yellow Flag, which examines European quarantines between 1780 and 1860, draws on letters and guidebooks. Ships coming from Egypt, even when there were no reports of the disease there, were stalled in the harbor for three weeks. The clothes and belongings of passengers and crew were fumigated. Cargo was disinfected with alcohol and chlorine. Every piece of mail was dipped in vinegar – an odour that still lingers on some letters.
And what of the people exiled on ship or in a lazaretto for a month? The rich could buy their way out, isolating for fewer days. Correspondence of the time speaks of an enforced leisure you might find familiar. Low-key worry, but also a chance to catch up on reading, and of looking forward to dinner. Sailors, soldiers and fishermen, however, were crammed into tiny rooms, and subjected to random inspections and fumigation.
Nations struggled until 1893 to work out global quarantine detention standards. Then as now, they fought to keep trade going, and to profit from the death tolls of a competing nation. We now follow the laws set by the World Health Organisation. And now, as before, the privileged are recording history – balcony photos, hashtagged workouts, Zoom chats and kitchen experiments. Future historians will have to look elsewhere to learn how the poor fared.