You’re floating off the coast of Civitavecchia, Italy, where the turquoise water is shimmering. Never mind the poolside crowds or the children screaming in the room over—it’s a holiday, and it’s blissful. Then, your ship announces a lockdown. And a possible case of the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, last month and has since infected more than 7,700 people. You’re stuck—all that was sparkling about your vacation is now tinged with the forced proximity of others and the underlying anxiety of possible infection. Was that a muffled cough?, you think, as you side-eye your neighbor.
This is more or less what happened to the passengers on the Costa Smeralda cruise ship Thursday morning, where more than 6,000 tourists and 1,000 crew members were quarantined. After a passenger from Macau came down with a fever and respiratory problems, fears over the possible case of the coronavirus led to immediate action. While the patient was in isolation in the ship’s hospital, the town of Civitavecchia prevented anyone onboard from disembarking until the results of multiple medical tests were known. Passengers took to social media to share their frustrations. It was unclear what would happen to the ship if the patient tested positive. Late Thursday night, the tests came back: She had the flu.
While the cruise ship may be one of the more bizarre instances, quarantines on small and large scales are being launched worldwide. The U.S. retrieved nearly 200 Americans “who are more at risk” from Wuhan on Tuesday. The government is keeping them at a California military base for at least three days, with the option to stay for 14 and a possibility of leaving early for “individual quarantine.” Similarly, the British government chartered a plane on Thursday to retrieve 200 Britons in the vicinity of Wuhan, which was itself quarantined last week. Upon their return to the U.K., the passengers will be taken to a facility in the northwest of England and held there for two weeks to monitor symptoms. Australia, in an apparent attempt to instate the most outrageous quarantine, has defended its plans to send evacuated citizens to an island used to banish asylum-seekers and criminals. (Some Australians have now said they prefer to remain in Wuhan.)
Meanwhile, at the center of the outbreak, Wuhan and its province, Hubei, have become the site of the largest experiment in human quarantining in history. China has indefinitely restricted the movement of more than 50 million people in a measure that’s been called “a radical experiment in authoritarian medicine.” Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told the Los Angeles Times that the Chinese government likely initiated the lockdown too late and that it could result in food and medicine shortages that amplify the outbreak. (There’s already been a serious shortage of hospital beds and medical supplies in Hubei.) “It will provoke fear and panic, and people will not come into the hospital, and so you’ll drive the epidemic underground,” Gostin told the Times.
The effects of China’s quarantine on its citizens have already been severe. People are experiencing increased levels of isolation and anxiety. While Wuhan is rushing to build two new hospitals by next week, the existing hospitals in Wuhan are so overcrowded that health care workers are wearing adult diapers in order to care for patients without taking bathroom breaks. A man said that roadblocks prevented him from getting his HIV medicine refilled, and instead of helping him, local police told his parents about his condition. A teenager with cerebral palsy died in a rural village on Thursday after his dad and brother, who were his caretakers, were taken and quarantined at a treatment facility 15 miles south of their house after developing fevers.
The ongoing debate over if, when, and how to quarantine people is fraught. Some argue that quarantining—which resurfaced in the modern era during the 2003 SARS outbreak—violates human rights and is ineffective and incompatible with modern cities and globalization. Others still maintain that quarantines work to keep the public calm, especially when the coronavirus has already killed at least 170 people, and help ensure the virus is contained. Regardless, biomedical researcher Eugenia Tognotti wrote in 2013 that segregation and isolation of people suspected of infection “has frequently violated the liberty of outwardly healthy persons, most often from lower classes, and ethnic and marginalized minority groups have been stigmatized and have faced discrimination.”
While there may be some justifications for certain quarantines, there are numerous instances where panic has informed extreme, stigmatizing restrictions. The cruise ship is the latest example: An Italian woman told the New York Times that the number of Chinese tourists in Italy is making her worried.
The public health merits of quarantining remain up for debate, but it’s clear that government responses to the coronavirus have already contributed to racial discrimination against at least one group of people. If anything, the coronavirus has shone a spotlight on how unimportant that is to governments, especially in the face of a public health crisis they don’t really know how to handle.