Humans are, by definition, contaminants,” Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley write in Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine. It’s a statement that our shared experience with COVID-19 only reinforces. Since March 2020, we have quarantined and socially distanced. We have lived in a world that’s been locked down. Even now, as we have begun—in the industrialized West at least—to emerge from isolation, many signifiers are still in place. Indoor mask regulations have just been reimposed in Los Angeles in an effort to restrict the spread of the Delta variant. The anti-vaccine rhetoric of public figures such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Candace Owens puts our recovery at risk. “The places that have best contained this new disease,” Manaugh and Twilley assert, “reducing mortality with the minimum of economic and social disruption, were those capable of implementing and managing population-scale quarantines.”
Oh, what a year and a half it’s been.
And yet, as Until Proven Safe methodically illustrates, quarantine has been around for centuries. Although the book’s appearance during COVID’s global disruption renders it timely, the authors, who live in Los Angeles, began their “journey through quarantine” in 2009. That was the year they curated a series of conversations among “architects, artists, designers, and writers” in an effort to explore the subject via a variety of disciplines. Such a wide-angle perspective—the intention to engage with space and how we use it—is very much in keeping with their work.
Manaugh is the creator of BLDGBLOG, a website focused on the relationship of the built environment to literature, mythology, technology, and crime, among many other areas; he is the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City (2016), which offers an unorthodox and innovative approach to understanding urban terrain. Twilley is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and a cocreator of the podcast Gastropod. Both are nuanced in their thinking about the ways we live. “The implementation of quarantine and isolation has always been a stimulus for creatively rethinking the built environment,” they note. In that sense, it’s an essential subject to explore.
Until Proven Safe begins by establishing a chronology. “In July 1377,” the authors observe, “the maritime city of Dubrovnik, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, instituted what are thought to be the world’s first mandatory public health measures with specific provisions for quarantine.” This was in response to the black death, which killed a third of Europe’s human population during the 14th century. Even then, however, quarantine didn’t mean a state of total shutdown; it was, as it remains, a tool for slowing down transmission, buying time.
The term derives from “the Italian word quarantena, shorthand for quaranta giorni, meaning forty days,” which suggests a biblical influence. But the intent was also practical. “Rather than close the city’s gates in the face of disease, sacrificing all the economic benefits of trade and travel,” Manaugh and Twilley continue, “Dubrovnik’s elders created a buffer, delaying the arrival of potentially infected people and goods into the city until they were proven safe.” Quarantine, then—as we recognize from our experience—is, or should be, less a matter of draconian measures and more a balance between public health and public good.
To trace a line from the 1300s to the present, Manaugh and Twilley take us on a looping ride. In Venice, they introduce the idea of the lazzaretto, or “quarantine hospital,” which for centuries meant a facility in which to isolate goods and travelers, as well as those sick with plague. It’s a medieval notion that is also quintessentially modern; what else have our homes been, since the early part of last year, if not lazzaretti? So, too, all manner of contemporary isolation areas, including infectious disease units, astronaut quarantine chambers, nuclear waste disposal facilities, and other sites where potentially contagious or hazardous individuals or products can be kept from the public until they have been deemed infection- or contamination-free.
Most disturbing are the risks to the food supply, both in the United States and globally. “Three-quarters of the United States’ vegetables,” Manaugh and Twilley report, “are grown in just three states, while two percent of the nation’s feedlots supply three-quarters of its beef…. Five bulls are responsible for a quarter of the genetic material in the country’s entire Holstein herd.” In addition, “fifteen crops provide 90 percent of the world’s food.” The result, Until Proven Safe concludes, is that, as plant pathologist Jim Stack tells the authors, “we’re only one pathogen away from starvation.”
That’s a terrifying statement, but Manaugh and Twilley are not out to frighten us. They are too enthusiastic about their research. Throughout the book, they cross continents and disciplines, applying the benefits, and the detriments, of isolation to an array of circumstances. In England, they visit the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre, a facility designed to protect the world’s chocolate supply. At the University of Minnesota, they tour the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cereal Disease Laboratory, where agricultural pathogens are researched. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the hills outside Pasadena, they enter “the clean room where Perseverance, NASA’s latest Mars rover, having been assembled under conditions of exacting sterility, sat awaiting shipment to Cape Canaveral.” Here, “the primary purpose was planetary quarantine: preventing the importation of Earth life to Mars.”
And yet, Manaugh and Twilley acknowledge, no quarantine or lazzaretto can ever be enough. Our existence makes us mutually vulnerable—to everything and everyone. This is what we’ve learned from COVID and what we likely will experience again. We are susceptible to cross-transmission, endangered and endangering at once. As travel and trade make future pandemics inevitable, the authors argue, “quarantine will remain indispensable: its circuit-breaker capability reducing rates of infection so that healthcare systems are not overwhelmed and vaccine-resistant viral mutations are less likely to occur.” As for the latter, we need look no further than the Delta variant, which is surging in many states, among them California, that only recently were believed to have the virus under control.
What this means is that we require consensus. What this means is that we require a common point of view. Manaugh and Twilley highlight this in the book’s final sections, where they discuss the necessity of “civility, of a politics and culture of collaboration that allow for awareness of shared responsibility in the face of an unknown disease.” The stakes could not be higher. “We will never have public health,” the authors write, “if we do not think of ourselves as a public.” And yet, “in the cultural politics of the United States today, putting country or community first in the name of disease control is no longer considered a sign of patriotism but of spineless surrender to authoritarian control.”
This, I want to say, is the issue in a nutshell. This, I want to say, is the whole idea. It is why, despite the very real risks of abuse—especially in a high-tech society where devices such as smart watches can track our symptoms and electronic security systems may also lock us in—quarantine is (and must be) a “part of our collective immune system, an outsourced behavioral response to viral threat.”•