Six years ago, I told you all about how quarantines don’t really work in practice. They work in theory just fine, but human nature in all of us make us violate quarantine almost inevitably. We just don’t like being told what to do as a society. We also get scared of contagion if we are feeling fine but are in a place where people are sick. You see that even in the most collectivist of societies.
Here we are now, six years later and in the middle of a full-blown pandemic of a respiratory pathogen. In a matter of weeks, this novel coronavirus traveled from Wuhan, China, to the far reaches of the globe. The result has been millions infected and millions dead, mostly because humans decided to not follow public health guidance. People just had to travel out of China, and then they had to travel all over the world. And now, because of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Americans just have to travel to see their families.
Some of the people I follow on social media are justifying their decision to travel to and meet with a lot of friends and family is that they’re doing it for their children. They say that they don’t want to ruin the holidays for their children, or that they don’t want to break with tradition. They value those traditions over life, and that both confuses and scares me.
It confuses me because I know that they are not uneducated people who would get confused by topics like Germ Theory, or who would not fully understand the myriad of health recommendations they’re being bombarded with every day. Many of them are professionals in the medical and scientific fields, yet they’re inexplicably tied to tradition.
If we were to stick to tradition, we wouldn’t have Germ Theory. I’m just saying.
Think about from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know better, and you’ll see how Germ Theory is actually quite complex a theory. How can we expect someone who has never looked into a microscope or grown bacteria in a Petri dish to understand what microbes are and how they cause disease? If we are still stuck thinking that amulets protect from disease, what can we expect of mask mandates or recommendations to wash hands?
This is a heck of a time to be in Public Health. As a public health worker, I find myself going up against political interests, divisiveness, ignorance, science denialism, and social barriers to health that are enormous and difficult to move. We’ve been responding to the pandemic for more than 300 days now, with only ten days off since. “Burn out” doesn’t even begin to describe what I’ve seen happening to some of my colleagues, and I’m convinced that they would be better off had they had the full support of the government and the politicians.
But no, no, no. We had to go and politicize the heck out of it all. Wear a mask? You’re sheep. You’re a socialist. Don’t wear a mask? You’re an idiot. You’re a bigot. Want a vaccine? Socialist! Don’t trust public health recommendations? Hillbilly. And so on, and so forth. And all of that politicization has made it almost impossible to get people to quarantine when exposed or isolate if they test positive. They don’t believe what we tell them, and they go out and about into the community, infecting others and leading us straight into the next wave of COVID-19 activity.
We have been trying quarantine since the times of the plague, and people still break them. We might even try it again with the next pandemic, or the one after that. I’m not very convinced it will work, especially if it is recommended/ordered/enforced in the context of a divided public opinion on something as basic as Germ Theory. But one can hope, right?
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.