It has been used to contain epidemics for thousands of years – and is a crucial response to the current health crisis, too. But when did quarantining people begin?
China has resorted to mass quarantining in response to the coronavirus epidemic, while towns in Italy with high infection rates have been cordoned off and holidaymakers in Tenerife are confined to their rooms. The rest of us can only watch and try not to panic. But this is far from the first time that freedom of movement has been curtailed because of fears of a pandemic.
The modern notion of quarantine dates back to the 15th century, when Venice was grappling with one of the recurrent outbreaks of the Black Death, which had devastated Asia and Europe in the 14th century and continued to reappear for the next 500 years. The idea of isolating potential carriers, usually sailors arriving on ships from Asia, where the plague originated, was common in the 14th century, but it wasn’t until 1448 that the Venetian authorities decreed the period of isolation to check for symptoms should be 40 (quaranta in Italian) days.