I took Until Safety Is Proven: The History and Future of Quarantine, by journalists Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley, with some trepidation. Who wants to stay, even intellectually, in this claustrophobic place that we have snuck in and made our way into in 2020 and 2021?
But there is something that seems impossible, too, to leave it behind, despite the call of feminine summers and the advent of the absurdly named ‘Freedom Day’ in the UK. Life seems more and more normal for the vaccinated, but death and disease continue to ravage the world of the unvaccinated. To which bellicose impulses – relief or fear, celebration or lingering sorrow – should we give in? Should we dance, or cry, or both? It’s hard to imagine what the closure might look like.
So there is something heartwarming counterintuitive about a deeply thought-out book that contextualizes and justifies the isolation and uncertainty of the past 18 months. Even though it seemed chaotic and unprecedented to those of us who hadn’t experienced it before, quarantine is actually “one of humanity’s oldest and most consistent responses to epidemic diseases.” write the authors.
Until safety is proven is not a hastily assembled response to the events of the past year and a half, but the result of many years of research. It may seem oddly prescient, but Manaugh and Twilley argue that the diseases and quarantines they inspire have in fact shaped much of the modern world, from international borders and passports to commerce and agriculture. “Quarantine restrictions, we realized, lie at the root of most global institutions and frameworks, preserved like a fly in bureaucratic amber,” they write.
Simply put, quarantine has always been an answer to the problem of doubt. “[T]there may be something dangerous within you – something contagious – about to break free, “write the authors.” The space and time you need to see if this will emerge is your midlife . “
The first recorded formal quarantine dates back to 1377, when the city of Dubrovnik required those arriving from plague hot spots to first spend a month in a designated quarantine outpost. Quarantine facilities have spread across the Mediterranean to slow the spread of the bubonic plague, and we have been living with quarantine in various forms ever since.
Manaugh and Twilley visit an impressive array of quarantine projects, many of which would be incomprehensible to 14th century Dubrovnik residents. There is a section, for example, devoted to the question of planetary quarantine, or how to ensure that we do not contaminate space or vice versa. After the Apollo moon landing, for example, the astronauts were detained at the “Lunar Receptive Lab” in Harris County, Texas. “In the event of true alien contagion, officials later revealed, the plan was to bury everyone in the lab alive under a mountain of dirt and concrete,” the authors write, “sacrificing both NASA astronauts and scientists “. (This turned out not to be necessary).
One of the most fascinating sections of the book examines how to quarantine something not just in space but in time. The authors describe the proposals (equally absurd and wonderful) on how to warn future generations of nuclear containment sites while the material is still dangerous. Should there be some sort of nuclear priesthood, whose mission is to cultivate a sense of superstition and foreboding around the region? Should we breed cats that change color in the presence of radioactive material, so that their owners realize that something strange is nearby? View a copy of Edvard Munch The Scream outside, to convey a primitive and silent terror in case the inhabitants of the future cannot read English? A report sponsored by the Department of Energy suggested engraving, on a massive stone monument, warnings such as “This is not a place of honor …
There are constant anxieties that run through each of these very different quarantine projects – anxiety about individual freedom, strangers, how to communicate danger convincingly, and whether it is possible to have one. spiritual or artistic life in isolation. The authors write, for example, that in medieval Split, a pulpit was attached to a tower overlooking the sea, “from where a priest could celebrate a mass in the open air and at a distance for the sailors quarantined on board their ships. ships “. There is a wonderful, cross-century kind of kinship there with the Detroit priest who anointed the faithful with holy water using a squirt gun during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These little echoes and threads across the centuries are reminders that the next forties are about when, not if. But they also show how endlessly and creatively people have tried to find ways to be together, even apart. At one point, Manaugh and Twilley cite a few lines carved on the walls of the Angel Island immigration post, where Asian immigrants were often quarantined in the early 20th century before being allowed into California. “Over a hundred poems are hung on the walls … What can one sad person say to another?” wrote “Xu, from Xiangshan.” But he still wanted to leave a mark – some form of company, perhaps, a reminder that other people had been there too.