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Monday, May 4, 2020

700 years of social distance have brought us here

From CNN What Matters May 3, 2020

700 years of social distance have brought us here
A socially distanced talk with my neighbor got me interested in how social distance was observed (if at all) during previous pandemics.

Turns out there's quite a precedent not just for staying away from your neighbors, but also for the idea of "quaranteaming" you might have heard about.

I talked to Rebecca Messbarger, a professor of Italian and founding director of the Medical Humanities program at Washington University in St. Louis about social distance from the black plague until now. The part below about the different ways people deal with distance still rings true.

Our conversation, edited slightly, is below:

Old school social distance

ZW: Pandemics are nothing new in world history. Now we're all asked to stay home and stop the spread. How did they deal with these types of things in the past? 

RM: So, first, quarantine is from the 14th-century Venetian term quarantena, tied to the word forty, quaranta, which was an important biblical time period (Moses and Elijah and Christ all fasted 40 days, and liturgically we think 40-day seasons such as that of Lent) and marked the period of 40-days of isolation that ships would have when they came into Venice. The crew, animals and products would all disembark on an island off of Venice and wait out the 40 days to make sure there was no contagion.

There are examples from across the historical landscape of responses to pandemic that have some similarities to what we are seeing today.

Boccaccio frames his masterwork the Decameron, written in 1351, with the historical backdrop of the 1348 plague that he had experienced firsthand in his hometown of Florence, where more than half of the citizenry including his father and stepmother died. This great mortality, as it’s often called, killed 40-60% of the population of Europe. One of the most memorable parts of Boccaccio’s account of the Florentine plague, and one that seems to transcend time, is his description of four types of human response to the catastrophe:

  1. Isolation, Self-Denial: “they banded together and dissociating themselves from all others formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with utmost care, avoiding every kind of luxury, but eating and drinking moderately…”
  2. Devil-may-care Partying: “[they] frequent places of public resort…day and night now to this tavern, now to that, drinking with an entire disregard of rule or measure...”
  3. Middle Way: “a few belonged to neither of the two said parties but kept a middle course…living with a degree of freedom sufficient to satisfy their appetites and not as recluses.”
  4. For Boccaccio the most terrible response was the abandonment of essential human ties by those who understood that no medicine existed to stem the disease and so they “deserted their city, their houses, their kinfolk… brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife… fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children…”

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  New York Times Jan 6, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases-deaths-tracker.html