Quarantine is a strategy of self-preservation

Monday, March 2nd, 2020 07:30 | By
A China Southern Airlines plane lands at Jomo Kenyatta. International Airport, with 239 Chinese nationals on board on Wednesday. The plane accessed JKIA despite coronavirus fears. Photo/PD/Courtesy

Many Kenyans outside the medical profession associate the word quarantine with outbreak of livestock diseases.

But the outbreak of coronavirus has informed many Kenyans that quarantine is as applicable to humans as to livestock. Coronavirus has also brought home to us the idea of self-quarantine.

Quarantine might be new to millions of people. However, as a strategy to control the spread of a pandemic, it is centuries old.

It is a practice dating back to the 14th century. Subjects suspected of carrying contagious diseases were isolated in hospitals or quarantine centres constructed for the purpose.

Self-quarantine is a word most of us have never heard of. A legislator was humble enough to say she had never heard of an individual quarantining himself.

The Old Testament of the Bible seems to indicate that self-quarantine or self-isolation was standard practice in certain ailments.

Although medical knowledge was rudimentary compared to advances in modern medicine, the principle that a person suffering from an infectious and virulent disease should not mix with healthy ones was established.

In fact, those suffering from certain diseases were to announce on an approach of a person, that he was suffering from such and such an ailment.

The aim was to forewarn the others that they shouldn’t come near them.

Self-quarantine, or self-isolation, was and still remains a principle of social control among some communities in Western Kenya notably the Luhya and the Luo.

If a man or woman committed a taboo, he couldn’t rejoin his family or clan members without being cleansed. For example, if man killed someone, he isolated himself until he was cleansed.

It was believed that the spirit of his victim would wreak havoc on his family if cleansing was not done before getting back to the fold.

In some cases, quarantine or isolation was merciless. A clan ostracised one of its members if he killed a clansman or woman.

The best example of this isolation is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where Umuofia clan ostracised Okwonkwo for unintentionally killing a clansman.

Imposed or self-inflicted, quarantine is a principle or strategy for self-preservation of the members of communities, nations or states.

In 1983, I had occasion to confront the ominous implications of the word quarantine, albeit in a novel.

Albert Camus Classic novel, in The Plague, shook my world when I first read it. Camus’ story is that of a group of men, defined by their gathering around and against the plague. 

Set in the Algerian city of Oran, the novel starts when Dr Rieux, the protagonist, starts noticing dead rats. 

Soon after, humans are dropping too and eventually Oran finds itself quarantined from the rest of the world. 

Citizens are cut off from friends, family and lovers beyond the town’s borders and households that suffer fatalities are themselves quarantined from the rest of the city.

Fear, confusion and resentment wracks all those trapped in the quarantine.

I have kept going back to this novel again and again because of the dogged determination of Dr Rieux and medical researchers to speedily find a vaccine against the pestilence. 

I was struck with the coordination of the operations to quarantine those affected, and the humanism and care of Dr Rieux and his team in preventing the spread of the plague and finding a cure.

I gleaned so much insight from the novel about the resilience society needs to address a problem and also the readiness to develop capacity to manage problematic situations.— The writer is the communications officer, Ministry of Education

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