Americans being quarantined for Ebola experience a terror and isolation that recalls long-past epidemics like cholera, typhus, and the bubonic plague, an expert on the history of medicine told The New York Times.
“Ebola is jerking us back to the 19th century,” Dr. Howard Markel told The Times. “It’s terrible. It’s isolating. It’s scary. You’re not connecting with other human beings, and you are fearful of a microbiologic time bomb ticking inside you.”
Terrifyingly, life under quarantine for possible exposure to Ebola is becoming a new reality for many Americans. This week, officials in Texas, where an Ebola patient died, said 100 healthcare workers had agreed to a voluntary quarantine for 21 days. Meanwhile, the four people who shared an apartment with that man, Thomas Eric Duncan, have been forced to remain quarantined under armed guard.
The New York Times paints a devastating picture of what it’s like to be cooped up under such conditions. From The Times:
It has been particularly wrenching for Louise Troh, 54, Mr. Duncan’s girlfriend, who has had to mourn his passing in isolation. When her pastor, the Rev. George Mason, arrived to break the news of Mr. Duncan’s death and she collapsed to the floor in tears, he could not console her with a hug. On his regular visits to the house, he stands three feet away and signals his affection by crossing his arms in an X over his chest.
Quarantine can be traumatic even for those who aren’t likely to have the disease. A missionary named Allen Mann quarantined himself voluntarily for three weeks in his home of Payson, Arizona after travelling to Liberia — even though there was little risk he had the disease, according to The Times. But rumours began to circulate that he had the disease. A commentator on a news site suggested he burn his house down.
“People had this lynch-mob mentality,” Mann told The Times.
The panic in Payson does seem eerily reminiscent of the panic that ensued amid the spread of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, in the 14th century. Here’s a description from the History Channel of the atmosphere in Europe during the plague:
[I]n a panic, healthy people did all they could to avoid the sick. Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites. Shopkeepers closed stores … And many people, desperate to save themselves, even abandoned their sick and dying loved ones.
Luckily, modern-day Americans can arm themselves with more knowledge than Europeans had back in the day about how disease is spread and how to contain it. There will always be paranoia and panic, but hopefully we won’t be abandoning our loved ones any time soon.
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