Is Coronavirus Panic Sending Us Back to the Days of Racist Quarantines?
Currently several hundred U.S. residents are being quarantined or have been quarantined on military bases in California and in Texas. Thousands more are voluntarily “self-quarantining.” The Trump administration has indicated that anyone who returns from a virus hotspot, currently only in China, but a designation likely to expand over the coming weeks and months, may face a mandatory government-imposed quarantine. It has already designated 11 military bases as potential quarantine sites.
Meanwhile, some states are also imposing their own wildly broad quarantines, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which forced 16 students — none of whom showed any symptoms of illness — into a mandatory 14-day quarantine at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster simply because they had traveled to China during their winter break. In New York City, Barnard College has also quarantined students; and on other campuses students are being encouraged to self-quarantine if they have recently returned from a hot zone.
There is a long history of sweeping quarantines in the U.S. During the deadly Spanish flu pandemic just over a century ago, U.S. cities imposed draconian limits on public gatherings, shuttering saloons, dance halls and other places where crowds congregated. They also staggered workplace hours to limit how many people would be in a factory at any one time and discouraged the use of public transport. In many ways, these restrictions were precursors of the emergency rules that Chinese authorities have put in place in recent weeks in cities such as Wuhan — rules that may not necessarily be the most effective way to contain the epidemic.