Until Proven Safe: the History and Future of Quarantine

I like to imagine Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh saying “No one would have believed…” like Richard Burton at the start of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, when asked how they feel in 2021 about this book. They started it, as far as I can tell, many years before 2020… and then finished it while large portions of the world were getting the ideas of ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ mixed up. (As the pair make clear, quarantine is when there is doubt about the infection status of a person or object.)

I came across this book because I am a massive fan of Gastropod, “food through the lens of science and history”, co-hosted by Twilley. And as a fan of wide-ranging history in general, it seemed like a good bet that it would be right up my alley. The podcast did one episode using some of the ideas from the book – talking about the quarantining of cocoa plants, mostly, so as to prevent the spread of chocolate-destroying pests, which I am heartily in favour of.

As the name suggests, the book covers both the history and the future of quarantine – and, of course, the present. Many more people know, in 2021, the origins of the word – the 40 days people and cargo on ships were kept out of places like Venice, for fear of sickness. Manaugh and Twilley visit Venice and Dubrovnik and Malta, places where quarantining had a long history in architecture and laws, and occasionally in famous people getting grumpy about being stuck.

The middle section is about quarantine today. As an Australian this is a particularly real issue; we really don’t want to bring yet more pests and diseases in if we can avoid it. There’s a reason dogs don’t get to be smuggled in, JOHNNY DEPP. It was fascinating to read about measures that are used around the world to try and stop invasive stuff – and how often, this is a stop-gap measure, because with ever-increasing world trade it’s just so easy for teeny critters and seeds to travel. This section also looks at ‘quarantining’ radioactive waste – which is a bit of a stretch, since there’s no real question about the stuff being dangerous; and the authors acknowledge that it is, indeed, about isolation, rather than quarantine; but their argument is that places doing this stuff are fascinating for ‘quarantine tourists’ because they showcase ‘extreme engineering controls’. And this section also looks at the measures used around space travel: like I didn’t know the first couple of sets of Apollo astronauts were required to quarantine for fear of moon diseases.

My one grumble about the book is a minor Australian one. In discussing Australian legislation from 1884, they call Australia “the newly unified continent” (p125). Australia didn’t federate until 1901. My quick google suggests that there were, indeed, “Sanitary Conferences” at this time aiming to have a united policy across the colonies, so I guess in that sense the continent was unified?

In the section about the future, Twilley and Manaugh do look at COVID responses, comparing them to medieval responses in terms of government use of power, and even deploy Foucault as a way of examining government (over)reach. We’re discussing these questions a lot at the moment, of course, and it was interesting to see it all in this context. And what was completely terrifying was to discover that there’s a “data-aggregation and modelling firm with close ties to the US defense industry” (p328) called Palantir. Palantir. The seeing-stones of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Wikipedia notes that “beings of great power could manipulate the stones to see virtually any part of the world”. And someone at this company thought this was a good name for this company.

I think, given our situation at the moment, one of the last points made in the book is particularly pertinent: “Ironically, if quarantine does work… it will almost always be perceived as an overreaction” (p349).

Well written, well researched, broad ranging and examining difficult issues with compassion and clarity. This is a great history of quarantine and I thoroughly recommend it. Exactly WHEN you want to read it will depend on your experience of 2020 and 2021, I suspect.

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