With the Novel coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc across the globe, phrases like quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing are being used widely. Even the government has been time and again stressing on implementation of such means to contain the spread of the deadly virus. In fact, today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation announced that the nationwide lockdown will be extended till May 3, culminating in a 40-day containment period.
Incidentally, this 40-day containment period recommended by PM Modi, is exactly what ‘quarantine’, which is one of the key methods being adopted by the government to contain the spread, stands for.
According to dictionary.com, ‘Quarantine’ essentially means a period, originally 40 days, of detention or isolation imposed upon ships, persons, animals, or plants on arrival at a port or place, when suspected of carrying some infectious or contagious disease. It is basically, a strict isolation, imposed to prevent the spread of disease.
Etymologically the word ‘quarantine’ means a period of 40 days, it originates from Latin word Quadraginta and the Italian word Quaranta both meaning ’40’, but to find the origin of the term, we would have to look back to mid-14th century Europe.
In the mid-14th century, the bubonic plague, infamously known as the Black Death, was ripping through the continent. Starting in 1343, the disease wiped out an estimated one-third of Europe’s population during a particularly nasty period of three years between 1347-50. This sweep of the plague resulted in one of the biggest die-offs in human history becoming an impetus to take action.
Officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) then passed a law establishing ‘trentino’, or a 30-day period of isolation for ships arriving from plague-affected areas. No one from Ragusa was allowed to visit those ships under trentino, and if someone broke the law, they too would be isolated for the mandatory 30 days. The law caught on. Over the next 80 years, Marseilles, Pisa, and various other cities adopted similar measures to control any kind of epidemic.
Within a century, cities extended the isolation period from 30 to 40 days, and the term changed from ‘trentino’ to ‘quarantino’—the root of the English word ‘quarantine’ that we use today.
In 1793, when yellow fever hit Philadelphia, sailors were quarantined in a hospital outside the city. When typhus landed in New York City in 1892, at least 70 people were quarantined on a nearby island. Similarly, when an outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) moved through Canada in 2003, about 30,000 people in Toronto were quarantined.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, health workers returning to the United States from affected areas were quarantined.
Forty days quarantine is still used as the most effective measure against an epidemic’s spread, and this is probably why the government of India has proposed an extension of nationwide lockdown until May 3.