Quarantine for 40 days

Cities have been quarantining suspected sick people to protect the majority from pandemics as a public health measure throughout history. The Bible’s Old testament Book of Leviticus (written between 3,000 to 2,500 years ago) includes the Law Concerning Leprosy. The law (Leviticus 13) describes how the priest should assess suspected lepers and then isolate them for seven days ready for further assessment.

Systems of quarantine

Venice established the world’s first systems of quarantine a bit later on. Venice was the maritime centre of trade in the Mediterranean during the 14th century. Its population was highly susceptible to the disease epidemics of the time due to the large volume of commercial traffic that passed through the city. They introduced two forms of quarantine, isolating the ships and placing affected people on an island.

The plague and leprosy

The worst of the epidemics were the bacterial diseases, the plague (the Black Death, the Pestilence, the Great Bubonic Plague, or the Great Plague) and leprosy. The plague, the worst pandemic in history, hit Europe in 1347 and took the lives of up to 200 million people across Europe in a few years. There have been outbreaks ever since. There were outbreaks of the plague in Australia as recently as a hundred years ago.

The invention of quarantine

The Venetians tried to control the spread of the Black Death into Venice in 1348. They detained ships, cargoes, and individuals in their lagoon for up to 40 days (a lesson the NSW Government seems to have ignored with the Ruby Princess). Venice established the world’s first maritime quarantine station, or lazaretto, as a response to the threat of leprosy in 1403. It was situated on Santa Maria di Nazareth, an island in the Venetian lagoon. In 1448 the Venetian authorities decreed the period of isolation for visiting vessels to check for symptoms should be 40 days. The Italian for forty is quaranta and that was adopted into English as quarantine.

The lazar house

A lazaretto was a building set apart for quarantine. Sometimes in English it was known as a lazar house. The word is derived from the new testament story of Lazarus, a victim of leprosy who was raised from the dead by Jesus. Lazarus is the patron saint of lepers.

Spanish flu

The influenza epidemic of 1918-20, known as the Spanish Flu, killed between 17-100 million people (a death rate only second to the plague). It was so widespread that in many cases it was not the sick who were quarantined but the healthy. This is a health measure now called protective sequestration.

Our governments and health systems are doing well. We will get through this much more unscarred than our ancestors had to endure.