Ramin Jahanbegloo
  • They have been successfully used against pandemics, terror, and technological disasters. What are the costs?
  • Thanks to tools like lockdowns confinement and isolation, lives have been saved in recent history. Self-isolation is now part of our everyday philosophy of life

NEW DELHI : Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a national lockdown for 21 days is an unprecedented decision in Indian history. While this is an emergency measure in response to an imminent health security risk, this is not the first time that a government facing a huge threat decides to take an exceptional measure.

Lockdowns have existed throughout human history in different forms and for different reasons: either to stop a pandemic, or to fight against terrorism or technological disasters.

Learning about the history of lockdowns is not merely an intellectual exercise. For instance, it has been a great help to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and state institutions in order to respond actively and positively to the dangers of a pandemic like Covid-19. Let us not forget that isolation, quarantine, and total lockdown are recognized public health measures that have been used for a long time.

Pandemics have always been profoundly unpredictable events in history, due to the immense complexity of the interactions between viruses and humans. It is by using the language of health and purity that modern rationality has approved and administered the creation of boundaries, gated communities and quarantines—distancing healthy society from the impure or unhealthy Other.

The image of the diseased person has often served as an isolation-reinforcing argument, signalling the moral and political imperatives of defending the integrity of a “healthy nation” against all those who are afflicted by the disease. The interventions may vary from behavioural changes like social distancing; quarantining infected patients; regional or national lockdowns. However, it is important to understand that modernity coupled with globalization has created its own dark side: pandemics like SARS and coronavirus, global terrorism and modern technological disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima can have a worldwide impact.

Isolation and quarantine

The advent of pandemics in the history of humankind has always been accompanied by a series of social, political and economic measures. In 412 BC, Greek physician Hippocrates reported an epidemic that modem doctors believe was the first recorded reference of influenza. Subsequently, there were two major plague pandemics in Europe—the Plague of Justinian (from 600 AD) and the Black Death (from 1340s onward)—followed by socio-political and economic consequences.

As such, each outbreak in the West was accompanied by the implementation of health regulations for its confinement. Isolating the plague patients was one of the measures practised in early modern Europe. A number of Italian city-states established quarantines as early as the 15th century to isolate those sick with plague.

The practice of confinement of those stricken by the plague was adopted by the European maritime powers like England and France during the 16th to the 18th centuries. London’s great plague of 1665 and the Marseilles outbreak in 1720 convinced the French and British administrations to enforce isolation measures in order to protect people from exposure to deadly diseases from overseas.

However, most historians go back to the outbreak of 1347-48. This reactive psychology against the patients of the Black Death was underlined by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio in his famous book The Decameron. According to him, “What gave more virulence to this plague was that by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire, when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had touched before.”

What was described by Boccaccio at the micro-level of individual psychology in relation to plague patients produced great economic and political changes at the level of state policies and commercial relation in modern Europe. The European maritime states adopted quarantine measures as part of their general mercantilist policies, establishing monopolistic trading companies.

Quarantine measures in early modern Europe not only helped to promote overseas commercial trade, but also served as an ideological function for the European states to stress on public welfare over private lives of the citizens. Also the English public became more aware of the dangers of the plague epidemic at the end of the 18th century. Quarantine regulations were relaxed in the mid-19th century.

Modern pandemics

The end of the plague pandemic in Europe did not mean necessarily that the world was free from all infectious diseases. The modern magnitude and gravity of some widespread diseases conferred upon them a social, economic, and political significance outweighing those of the two world wars in the 20th century. The influenza pandemic of 1918 caused 50 million deaths worldwide.

Since 1957, influenza pandemics have killed a million people. With the new infectious diseases such as SARS and Avian flu having a disastrous influence on the global economy and international politics, many developed states around the world had to take severe measures.

The outbreak of SARS in November 2002 in China infected more than 5,300 people and killed 349 nationwide. However, the SARS crisis led the Chinese government to take draconian measures to strengthen its authority while sealing off villages, apartment complexes, and university campuses and putting hundreds of thousands of people in confinement. The anti-SARS lockdown policy in China in 2003, followed by a comprehensive epidemic control plan, taught China how to contain the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

The fact that China’s aggressive measures have slowed the coronavirus does not mean that a global surveillance system for pandemic prevention has become a reality. Containing pandemics is not an easy task for governments and civil societies around the globe. Successful containment would depend on many factors, including tracing exposed individuals, vaccinating the threatened population and decontaminating places and things. Individual isolation and national lockdowns have not been replaced thus far.

The nuclear lockdowns

Some of the more recent examples of lockdowns have taken place thanks to nuclear accidents, like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The nuclear accident on 26 April 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of Ukraine, is considered as the worst nuclear disaster in history. Today, nearly 35 years after the accident, it is still difficult to quantify the impacts of the accident, either in terms of public health or in terms of economic and social costs.

The numbers of victims were staggering: 650,000 workers were directly involved in fighting the fire, assisting evacuees, and cleaning up. About 90,000 people had been evacuated from the 30km-radius, which included the thriving city of Pripyat and more than 70 other settlements. Additionally, 77 administrative districts in 12 regions of Ukraine, including more than 1,500 villages, residential areas, and towns, were heavily contaminated with radioactive material.

Soon after the accident, the Soviet army locked down an area of 30km-radius from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Later the radius was changed to cover a much larger area of Ukraine. Known by the name of “The Exclusion Zone”, the locked down area was initially divided into three subzones: the area immediately adjacent to the reactor where the incident happened; an area of approximately 10km-radius from the reactor; and the remaining 30km-zone.

Considered as the radioactive contaminated area, “The Exclusion Zone” was totally closed to public access and it was under full military control. For more than two decades, Soviet and Ukrainian authorities maintained the zone around the reactor, including the city of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people.

It is interesting to note that in the memory of Ukrainians and Russians the horrific disaster of Chernobyl was compared to an act of war. As if the lockdown was a victory against a foreign enemy which has invaded the country. No one better than Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2015, has analysed this muddling of the two concepts of “war” and “disaster” in her book Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History Of A Nuclear Disaster.

In this book, she argues: “In Chernobyl, we see all the hallmarks of war: hordes of soldiers, evacuation, abandoned houses. The course of life disrupted. Reports on Chernobyl in the newspapers are thick with the language of war: ‘nuclear’, ‘explosion’, ‘heroes’. And this makes it harder to appreciate that we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun.”

Consequently, even pandemics, emergencies and lockdowns have their own heroes. Let us not forget that today, nine years after Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Japanese continue to consider the courageous group of firefighters, employees of the nuclear plant, and members of the Japanese Self Defense Forces as their heroes. But even if disasters and lockdowns do not last forever, sometimes heroism and tragedy are put together and turn into a subject of tourist attraction. It is ironic that Chernobyl, that is the site of the worst nuclear disaster in modern times, which resulted in thousands of deaths, is today an official tourist attraction in Ukraine.

According to Greenpeace, the final death toll of Chernobyl, mostly related to cancer deaths, is estimated up to 200,000 fatalities. Chernobyl has become one of the most blatant examples of what we can call “dark lockdown”, a term that can be associated with death and suffering of innocent people such as the 9/11 tragedy in New York.

The terrorist lockdowns

Not surprisingly, most of the famous examples of national lockdowns in the past two decades around the world have been related to terrorist attacks. Like pandemics, global terrorism is a side effect of a globalized world as ours. 11 September 2001 will be forever remembered as one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in modern times.

The attacks caught America and its leaders completely off guard, but it was immediately followed by a three-day lockdown of American civilian airspace. All incoming international flights were diverted to Canada. Washington airspace restrictions were severely tightened after the 9/11 attacks, but the most severe lockdown happened in New York. Bridges and tunnels to Manhattan were closed to non-emergency traffic in both directions. As a result, there was interruption of food deliveries to restaurants and groceries.

All public schools, colleges, daycares and universities in New York and in the Washington, D.C., were also closed. The 9/11 lockdown might have been short term, but it had a long-term effect on the social and political behaviour of the American institutions and citizens. It increased anti-Muslim feelings and segregation in certain American cities, limited American democracy with an anti-terrorist laws, extended privatization of the public sector and restricted the use of public spaces.

These are modes of behaviour and governmental decisions which have usually accompanied nationwide lockdowns around the world.

In the wake of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris by the Islamic State organization on 13 November 2015, the Belgian government imposed a security lockdown of four days. A terror alert across the Brussels metropolitan area led to the closure of shops, schools, public transportation and the prohibition of any gatherings for a period of four days. This is similar to the Boston lockdown, after the Boston Marathon bombing on 15 April 2013. Thanks to the shutdown, one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died after the shootout.

So, it goes without saying that recent lockdowns, as a response to pandemics, terrorism or natural or technological disasters, have saved lives. Lockdown, confinement and isolation are words which are used today positively in the battle against the coronavirus around the world.

As they say in French, isolation is nothing but a bad solitude. But today, isolation can save lives. Self-isolation is now part of our everyday philosophy of life.

Courtesy LiveMint