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Saturday, May 09, 2020

1889 Institute: too late to correct quarantine mistakes, but never too late to learn from them


Never Again
By Mike Davis

In the late 1800’s, citizens of southern U.S. cities, fearing the spread of yellow fever, used shotguns to prevent outsiders from entering their towns. The economic toll of these local actions was so severe that once-rebellious southern states, less than a generation after the Civil War, asked the still-hated federal government to step in and reduce local quarantine powers.

Before Congress could act, treatments for yellow fever were discovered, and abusive Shotgun Quarantines faded from memory. The tragedy of those quarantines is that they made absolutely no difference in stopping the disease. It turns out that mosquitos, not people, spread yellow fever. Quarantines don’t work on mosquitoes, so Shotgun Quarantines served only to destroy the southern economy.

Our Covid response, while not quite as medically futile, has shown a similar disregard for the economy. What’s more, flattening the curve may have reduced deaths in March and April, but at a steep cost: we may see more total Covid deaths in the long run as a result of the lockdown. This from a study by a former department head in Epidemiology at The Rockefeller University, and bolstered by a second study from Harvard University.

We have missed our best opportunity to create herd immunity (enough people who have recovered from the disease to slow its spread to the most vulnerable). In particular, by shuttering schools we missed the chance for children, who have an incredibly low incidence of symptoms and a nearly-zero mortality rate from the disease, to develop herd immunity. In flattening the curve we have likely increased the total number of infections. 

It is too late to correct these mistakes, but it is never too late to learn from them. The next time someone suggests a quarantine of healthy and sick alike, maybe we will have more to say than, “We are afraid, please someone save us.” We will remember that knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all reactions create unintended consequences. They often fail to achieve their intended consequences as well. We will remember that locking peaceful, healthy people away is not quarantine, it is imprisonment.

More than mere memories, we should enact changes in state and local emergency procedures. Lockdowns and forced closures should be off limits.

If the state government has responded to an emergency, local authorities should not be allowed to enact harsher restrictions without the governor’s permission. There was no excuse for cities to bully businesses who were on the state and federal list of essential services. While the realities of urban life might warrant different responses, the governor’s office can certainly recognize those differences and coordinate with a mayor’s office.

The legacy of the Shotgun Quarantines is a historical footnote. Let’s make sure the legacy of the Covid-19 Lockdowns is lasting legal reform that ensures proportional responses to future health crises.

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at the 1889 Institute.

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