The nationwide quarantine imposed exactly one year ago today might well have qualified for that cliché “the first day of the rest of your life,” but let us hope that it is not quite as bad as that. Calling the past 12 months a unique year would be an understatement and obviously searching for any parallels among the 34 years of my Buenos Aires Herald newsroom experience would be a mission impossible.
Yet nothing very innovative about the quarantine concept. Their forerunner of the leper colony dates back at least 27 centuries to Biblical times – “He is unclean. He shall live alone,” concludes the Book of Leviticus following a detailed description of the disease and all its scabs – and mediaeval Europe is estimated to have had almost 20,000 such “lazarettes.” Quarantine as such began as the Venetian reaction to the Black Death in 1347 – the Venetians were past masters in the art of segregating undesirables because a little later (in 1516) they gave the world its first ghetto, one of the smaller islands comprising that watery city-state where Jews were confined and later given that name.
But I digress – Argentina is supposed to be the focus of these columns. Here at least quarantine (which imposed lockdown nationwide for 80 days and for 29 weeks in this metropolis) is virtually unprecedented. Neither the cholera outbreak of 1867 nor the yellow fever of 1871 (each claiming 14-15,000 lives – the Herald’s rival The Standard estimated the latter’s toll at 26,000) were thought to justify such action although quarantine was applied to arriving immigrants (along similar lines to dogs in more normal times nowadays) but not Argentine citizens. An ad hoc quarantine was also applied to poor and black neighbourhoods in the form of being encircled by Army troops with nobody allowed to enter or leave – much like the Greater Buenos Aires shantytown of Villa Azul last May with its perimeter patrolled by 300 Buenos Aires provincial policemen.
No memory recall for quarantines, then, but at least one pandemic has fallen within my experience, not that I took much notice at the time. Pandemic is a Greek word and dates back to Ancient Greek times – the plague originating in Africa during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 430BC. The prefix “pan” means worldwide and back then a plague spanning the Eastern Mediterranean covered all the known world but since then the bar for “worldwide” has been steadily raised until our times of globalisation and low-cost flights which so accelerated the spread of coronavirus. All the great plagues since have been dubbed pandemics although that term was not necessarily used at the time. Since the Spanish flu of 1918 (which killed 50 million people or more worldwide – its ravages greatly boosted by the starvation rations in many countries in the last year of the First World War) there have been influenza pandemics in 1955, 1968, 1977 and 2009, none of them having anything like the impact of Covid-19 now or its predecessor a century previously.
The last of those pandemics in 2009 falls within my Herald years. The swine flu (or H1N1, as the scientists call it) of 2009 would hardly deserve to figure in the same league as coronavirus on the basis of its death toll – a grand total of 685 dead as against 872 just in the seven days before this column was written (far from the worst figure as still a summer week with the numbers generally falling since mid-January). And indeed while considered a pandemic worldwide, it never really graduated beyond epidemic status here. It was naturally a deep concern for the medical profession and led to the declaration of a health emergency with all schools being closed down throughout July (which in any case was mostly a winter holiday month) – the University of Buenos Aires was perhaps the hardest-hit.
Nevertheless, I cannot say for sure that swine flu ever made the front page of our newspaper at least because it had some powerful competition – the aftermath of the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown worldwide and the ferocious midterms face-off with the farm sector at home. Not to mention then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s chronic allergy to any bad news about nasty things happening on her watch, even when they could not possibly be laid at her door as in this case – she used her control of the agenda to keep swine flu very much out of the public eye (or at least mine).
Swine flu can be listed as one of a series of false alarms this century along with SARS in 2003 and bird flu in 2012, which ended up lowering our guard for when the real killer arrived just over a year ago. The shock then led to the other extreme of mass acceptance of lockdown overkill during the second quarter of last year with this metropolis kept in isolation (ASPO) until early November but at that point vaccines were already on the horizon and the previous complacency started creeping back.
Meanwhile since the advent of quarantine a year ago there have been many rushes to judgement about its effective value in both directions but I would insist on withholding analysis until we have hindsight, which will not be available for a long time. The strict quarantine a year ago resulted in initially enviable coronavirus data (Argentina still had a three-digit death toll in midyear) and bought time to bolster the health system but also did more economic damage than in most countries – any cost-benefit analysis will have to await the economic fallout panning out fully. More recently relaxation has been accompanied by recovery but the second wave within perhaps as little as six weeks might yet give cause to regret the change in priorities. As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are things we know, things we don’t know and things we don’t know we don’t know and pandemic analysis risks falling into that latter category.
All we can do on this anniversary is to pay our respects to far too many dead.