Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Quarantine

Updated on Feb 15, 2020 12:24 PM IST

The aim of quarantine is to prevent transmission of the disease from potentially infected persons to healthy persons during the incubation period

(Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
(Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
Hindustan Times | ByShashi Tharoor

Quarantine (noun), a period of enforced isolation for a person, animal, or object suspected of carrying a communicable disease.

Usage: Wuhan has been placed under quarantine and people arriving from China are also facing temporary isolation.

The epidemic of novel coronavirus (NCOVID) sweeping across China and potentially threatening the world has suddenly brought the word “quarantine” into widespread use. The term goes back to the 1660s, when disease was often carried across the seas on ships, and referred to the period a ship suspected of carrying disease was kept in isolation. Quarantine came from the Italian quarantinagiorni, literally “space of forty days,” from quaranta (forty) and giorni (days), in keeping with the Venetian policy (first enforced in 1377) of keeping ships from plague-stricken countries waiting off its port for 40 days to assure that no communicable cases were aboard, since no effective treatment or cure was known then. After three centuries of this practice in Italy, the broader sense of “any period of forced isolation” emerged.

Initially, the Venetians reacted to the bubonic plague, known notoriously as the Black Death, which was spreading through Europe between 1347-50 (it is estimated that one-third of Europe’s population died). The Great Council of Ragusa passed a law establishing trentino, or a 30-day period of isolation for ships arriving from plague-affected areas. When in 1377 the isolation period was extended from 30 to 40 days, the term changed from trentino to quarantino.

Interestingly, in English the word quarantine had an earlier meaning, that of a period of 40 days in which a widow had the right (and some say, the obligation) to remain in her dead husband’s house (1520s), and even earlier, as quarentyne, it had religious connotations, referring to the time in the desert in which Christ fasted for 40 days, Moses’ time on Mount Sinai, and the Catholic observation of Lent, a 40-day period of spiritual purification. Now its usage is perhaps more common and more banal, as in “My dog had to be quarantined when I moved back to India.” Then Indian students evacuated from the Wuhan area are “in quarantine” in Manesar, along with the brave diplomats (one of them a nephew of mine) who went to arrange their evacuation.

When an outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) moved through Canada in 2003, about 30,000 people in Toronto were quarantined. Epidemiologists (experts in the spread of disease) are still debating whether it effectively helped to control the spread of disease, but in any case, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, health workers returning to the United States from affected areas were quarantined.

The aim of quarantine is to prevent transmission of the disease from potentially infected persons to healthy persons during the incubation period. Quarantine can take two forms: absolute or complete quarantine, which consists of a limitation of freedom for a period equal to the longest usual incubation period of the disease; and modified quarantine, which involves selective or partial limitation of movement, such as the exclusion of children from school or the confining of military personnel to their base. It therefore involves infringing upon the liberty of outwardly healthy people, and this has both legal and ethical implications which should not be taken lightly.

Few infectious diseases have an incubation time or infective period greater than forty days -- except rabies, which may not show up for several months. That is why animals that may have been exposed to rabies are quarantined for many months when they arrive in other countries. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) does have a longer incubation period than SARS or NCOVID, but human rights advocates have ensured there is no quarantine for potential carriers of that infection, which in any case cannot be spread as easily as SARS or NCOVID.

In 1969 the World Health Organization issued international health regulations for just four designated quarantinable diseases: cholera, plague, yellow fever, and smallpox. Smallpox was proclaimed eradicated by WHO in 1979, and the other diseases on the list are relatively rare, so the quarantine stations that were formerly common in many seaports around the world have been abandoned, taken down, or converted into holiday resorts.

Quarantine law and regulations still apply in many countries, however, to protect animals and plants of economic importance from exotic diseases. Animal and plant quarantine procedures are often as important as human quarantine. The economic importance of agriculture and animal husbandry in many countries makes it vital for them to keep out diseases that might wipe out valuable cattle herds or destroy a season’s harvest.

Quarantine is usually always used literally, but that doesn’t prevent us from applying the word metaphorically, as in: “I would love to quarantine his bigoted communal ideas to prevent them infecting more people.”

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