Quarantine unjustified, Ebola not U.S. plague
The word “quarantine” comes from Italy, having been created by Venetian officials instituting a series of laws while the Black Death was sweeping through Europe in the 1300s. All crew members and passengers aboard ships wishing to disembark in Venice were required to stay on board for 40 days.
While the Black Death did eventually make its way into Venetian territory, the measure helped slow its spread, and the practice proved effective against later diseases.
Quarantines are perhaps one of the few medical practices from medieval times that are actually effective at combating serious health ailments.
But while the media frenzy may have some convinced that a planet-sweeping plague has reached us, Ebola is not the Black Death returned. Modern hygiene and a lack of thatched roof cottages full of flea-ridden rats go a long way toward protecting us from Ebola (which, incidentally, can’t be transmitted through insects).
But one of the most important developments that we have made as a society between the creation of the quarantine and today is not a medical advancement but a social one. The concepts of personal liberty and autonomy as human rights are in danger not from the spread of Ebola, but from fear.
In Maine, authorities demanded a 21-day quarantine for Kaci Hickox, a nurse who has returned from western Africa where she treated victims of Ebola. Upon her arrival, she was held in New Jersey in a cramped isolation tent without privacy or plumbing for three days before being released. These orders were issued despite the fact that she had repeatedly tested negative for the virus and showed no symptoms.
Hickox and her lawyer maintained that these orders were unconstitutional since she showed no signs of infection, and the local judge issued a series of less restrictive orders before dropping them entirely on Friday. While going for a bike ride on Thursday she was hounded by reporters asking her “if it was worth it” to “risk” the safety of everybody around her.
There was no scientific basis to assume she was any sort of risk to the community, and the stigma health workers are facing upon their return could discourage relief efforts in western Africa where they are important for stopping the virus at its source.
Television media might want to consider covering the part of the world where the vast majority of the 5,000 expected deaths from the epidemic has happened, instead of harassing a healthy woman in Maine going for a bike ride.