COVID 19, Pic source: John Hopkins University
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A short video story on Quarantine

While the world witnessed one of the major pandemic these days in the form of Corona virus spread. More than 220, 000 cases of COVID 19 had been reported with around 8900 fatalities in one hundred seventy eight countries. With other preventing measures, the isolation/Quarantine is considered as one of the key strategy to flat the curve of spread. Schools, airlines, workplace were shut down to avoid the physical contact with others.

Let’s explore the history of Quarantine.  According to Webster dictionary, it’s the term for the restriction of the movement of people and goods which was intended to prevent the spread of disease. The word Qurantine has its roots from Italian word “quaranta giorni” means forty days. It appeared in English during 17th century but the history of the isolation is thousand years old. One of the earliest references was found in Old Testament. The book Leviticus gave an instruction for the separating the infected people from the normal to prevent the spread of disease.

A folio from book of Leviticus, source: Wiki images

The old testament that came up around two thousand five hundred years ago in the present shape cited about it as “If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine him, and if he sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin, he is to isolate him for another seven days

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also instructed about the isolation. The book of Hadith, Sahih Al Bukhari cited it as ” If you hear of an outbreak of plague/epidemic in a land, do not enter it; if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.

Pic of Prophet mosque & Tomb, source: Dr. Iqbal

The first involuntary hospital quarantine was started in Damascus during the reign of Ummayad Caliph Walid I, 707 AD. An order was issued to separate the leprosy patient from other patients. This practice of separating the lepers with other patient continued till 15th century when Ottomans first build a separate Leprosy hospital.

Map showing the Ummayad, Caliphate with Damascus as capital, 750 CE, Source: Wiki images

In 1348, Venice established the world’s first institutionalized system of quarantine, giving a council of three the power to detain ships, cargoes, and individuals in the Venetian lagoon for up to 40 days.  During this time, the ships coming from infected countries were hold with the passenger during the epidemic of Black Death/plague. Almost one fifth of Europe Population was wiped out. Many laws were established across the European countries.

Quarantine Seals Stamped to Passports of Foreigners with Infectious Disease, 1843
18th C painting of Venice, Source: Wiki Images

One of the first international sanitary conferences was held in Paris, with an eye to making quarantine an international cooperative effort in 1851. From 1852-1947 several conventions came up regarding the quarantine.

International Sanitary conference, 1851

In aftermath of continued outbreaks of yellow fever the Congress in United States passed federal quarantine legislation in 1878. By the start of 19th century many countries across the world has established their own regulation for quarantine. But the forcible isolation of the patients also raised the questions of civil right. One such case that raised many queries was of Mary Mallon. An Irish cook working in United States, she was an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella Typhi got much attention during early 20th century. She infected almost fifty one people & three of them died. She was arrested in 1907 & passed twenty three years & seven months in a forced quarantine at Riverside hospital, North Brother Island.

Story of the Mary Mallon that found the place in top headlines of International news articles


When the history of Quarantine was closely interwoven with maritime trade & sea routes as it was most common used mode for travelling in medieval ages. Plain yellow, green, and even black flags had been used to symbolize disease in both ships and ports. The present flag used for the purpose of Quarantine is the “Lima” (L) flag, which is a mixture of yellow and black flags previously used.

Lima Flag is mix of black & yellow colors that symbolize Plague (Black Death) & Yellow Fever.
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Rehan Asad is a medical doctor & currently working as an anatomy faculty. He has a penchant for writing people, food & culture stories.


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