Reviewing Pandemic Prevention Amid Hong Kong’s Selective Quarantine

quarantine, "pesthouses" were invented in italy in mid-14th century

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Basic quarantine wasn’t created until 25 years after the Black Death’s first wave. Florence is credited with creating the first “pesthouse” in 1377, where plague victims were isolated to either die or recover. Some say the Hong Kong government is taking quarantine too far.

Face mask protection
As people worldwide are well aware, modern-day mitigation methods for slowing the spread of a virus include social distancing and mask wearing. Photo By Maridav / Shutterstock

During hot spots of new COVID-19 outbreaks, the Hong Kong government has put strict coronavirus containment measures into place, which include having close contacts of positive cases being housed in government quarantine centers. However, people who find themselves in government-mandated lockdowns feel as though the confinement is unfair and unnecessary, especially since many of them have followed proper social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.

The idea of quarantining the sick is certainly old, but maybe not as old as it should be. When the Black Death ravaged the world in 1353, it would be nearly another quarter of a century before isolating plague victims entered the minds of Europeans.

In her video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, explained how the world developed methods of preventing germ spread.

The Return of the Black Death

After the initial outbreak of the Black Death in 1353, subsequent waves came every 10 to 30 years until 1664. If there was a silver lining to the Black Death, it came after the second and third outbreaks and pertained to public health awareness.

“While the recurrence of plague certainly disrupted the attempts of local governments and other entities to try and recreate what had been normal in the pre-plague world, it also spurred them to grow and change,” Dr. Armstrong said.

“For it wasn’t too long before most communities realized that this thing was going to come back with some regularity, and as such, it was necessary that there be some strategies in place to combat it.”

Italian cities like Florence created an official Board of Health after the first outbreak of plague. Shortly thereafter, the idea spread and other cities created administrative bodies specifically for dealing with plague.

The Resurrected Man

“One new creation that came into existence was the pesthouse or lazaretto, sometimes called ‘lazar houses’—after the biblical figure of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead,” Dr. Armstrong said. “These were places where those sick with plague were sent to either die or recover.”

According to Dr. Armstrong, pesthouses were different from normal medieval hospitals in that they were only used during plague outbreaks. Once a plague epidemic was declared in a city—which was, for reasons we still see today with COVID-19, a major decision—certain buildings would be designated as pesthouses.

So where did they come from?

“The Italian city-state of Venice was one of the first to institute this practice, and when they did so, they made use of the natural defenses of islands,” Dr. Armstrong said. “It was in the Venetian territory of Dubrovnik, in what is now Croatia, that scholars think the first pesthouse was established on the island of Mljet in 1377.

“In Venice itself, the city leaders had a plague hospital constructed in 1403.”

Even the word “quarantine” and its current meaning stem from Venice. Dr. Armstrong said it comes from the Italian phrase quaranta giorni, meaning “40 days.” This was the length of time the Venetian government required incoming ships and people to wait on a nearby island before being permitted to Dubrovnik.

At least in Hong Kong, it’s down to 10 days.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily