February 5, 2021

European current affairs   //   I S S U E   6    //    I S O L A T I O N

In August 2014, when Ebola had killed more than 700 people, West-African countries decided to draw a line around areas severely hit by the epidemic. They ordered the police and the military to let no-one in or out. The New York Times called this sanitary cordon a disease-fighting tactic not used in nearly a century.

The most recent example the newspaper recalled dated from 1918 when Poland and Russia's borders were closed to stop typhus from spreading to the West. The Times also referred to medieval times when these tactics were used to fight the Black Death. But sanitary cordons are more common than we think, and the last times they were imposed weren't even that long ago.  

In 2003, cordons were drawn around countries like China, Hongkong, Taiwan, and Singapore for travelers arriving from SARS hit areas. In China, the government quarantined entire villages — no-one was allowed to leave or enter. 

In 1995, something similar happened in Zaïre. After an Ebola outbreak, President Mobutu surrounded the city of Kikwit with troops, and he suspended all flights. 

In 1972, the Yugoslav government used roadblocks to quarantine more than 10,000 people when it recorded a virulent smallpox virus outbreak. President Tito prohibited public meetings and non-essential trips.

Restrictions are often lifted when the most significant wave of a virus fades. One sanitary cordon, however, from a more distant time, lasted for a century and a half. It was erected by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, to protect his people from regular outbreaks of the deadly smallpox virus. 

Imagine you were a trader, on your way from Constantinople to Vienna. You'd embark on a challenging journey that would take you weeks, if not months, because you had to cross an infinite number of rivers and mountains to get to your destination. Somewhere in the northern Balkans, you would pass a fortified frontier erected by the Habsburgs, originally meant to protect from Ottoman raids and enforce customs. At the beginning of the 18th century, you suddenly had to register at one of the 19 border crossing facilities, where you isolated for at least 21 days. Here, you would stay in one of the quarantine quarters Habsburg officials disinfected with sulfur or vinegar. Agents inspected your cargo to see if it contained anything that was able to transmit germs. This procedure might seem slow and frustrating, but you were brought before a military court and sentenced to death if you didn't meet regulations.

Starting at the time of the Habsburg sanitary cordon, the idea of doux commerce — gentle trade — began to gain ground. The doux commerce theory claimed that the spread of trade and commerce would decrease violence, including open warfare. One of the most influential supporters of this theory was Montesquieu, who wrote that "wherever the ways of man are gentle, there is commerce; and wherever there is commerce, there the ways of men are gentle." 

"The natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace," Montesquieu concluded.  

As liberalism got more influential, it became too difficult to uphold a permanent sanitary cordon when there was no immediate threat to public health. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Habsburgs had to loosen their border restrictions, ending one of the longest standing sanitary cordons in history.  

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Not much has changed. 

The liberal idea of gentle trade might be one reason why today we're shocked when we see a country locked down because of a virus outbreak. A sanitary cordon goes against deeply held beliefs of how a peaceful society should be organized. This belief is part of our Enlightenment heritage. Yet, the philosophes also taught us that governments should enhance public health — and that's where today's political dilemmas originated. 

It's tempting to mock the lack of historical awareness of The New York Times. But many of us were struck with similar awe when we saw Chinese hanging out of their windows, waving their cellphone lights as the Wuhan-lockdown was imposed just a year ago.

We tend to forget what happened in the past and what we didn't know about what happened, complacent as we are with the progress we've made — the diseases we've fought, and the knowledge we've gained.

Notes and further reading:

The New York Times called the sanitary cordon a disease-fighting tactic not used in nearly a century.

One sanitary cordon, however, from a more distant time, lasted for a century and a half.

Photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash.