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Quarantine and Isolation

Updated: May 24, 2020

With the spread of COVID-19, measures are being taken that many of us only know from history lessons. Key to all interventions aimed at preventing or limiting the spread of an infectious disease, is the separation of those with, from those without the disease. Two terms associated with such measures are quarantaine and isolation. Although often used interchangeably, these terms refer to different methods of preventing epidemics to evolve. The American Center for Disease Control offers an excellent explanation:

"Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick."

The word isolation is derived (through French and Italian) from the Latin insulatus: made into an island. Of course this relates to the Latin insula: island. Quarantine is derived from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning forty days. This was the period during which ships and people arriving to Venice during the Pest epidemic in the 14th Century had to spent at an isolated and restricted area, before they were allowed into the city. Nowadays, the term isolation is used for people who already have symptoms of a certain disease. In contrast, quarantine is used for people without symptoms of a certain disease, but who have an increased risk of being a carrier of this disease. The quarantine period is used to see whether they will develop the disease, or not. If so, they are placed in isolation, if not, they are 'released'. And what better place for quarantine than an island?

In The Netherlands, an island that was partly used for quarantine purposes was the Isle of Wieringen. It is not an island anymore: It was used as part of the enclosure for the Wieringermeerpolder, the land reclamation that was part of the immense waterworks undertaken between 1918 and 1968.

The map below was published in 1892 by a society of concerned citizens lobbying by the government to establish plans to prevent the sometimes disastrous flooding of the Zuiderzee. With some modifications, these were the plans that were carried out. One of its main features was the building of a dike to close of the entrance of the Zuiderzee. This Afsluitdijk - closure dike - was finished in 1932, transforming the Zuiderzee, with its salt water, in to a sweet water lake, the IJsselmeer. More on this map and project in future posts.

Before this transformation, the Isle of Wieringen was a small island, inhabited by fishermen and farmers. But it had quite a strategical position: on route to Amsterdam, all ships coming from the North sea passed the island. This is why in 1806, when the Netherlands were under Napoleonic reign, a quarantine facility was erected at the south-western point of the island, near Westerland. On this map from 1868, the quarantine facility can be observed.

Gemeente Wieringen. From Kuypers gemeenteatlas, 1868.

The facility was not frequently used. However, around 1830, over 200 German sailors were isolated in the facility because of cholera, many of whom died and were buried at the cemetery of Westerland. Around 1875 the facility was closed, mainly because of the opening of the new Noordzeekanaal: A canal that connected the port of Amsterdam with the North sea harbor of IJmuiden.

The isolated location of the isle of Wieringen proved useful in another time in history. After World War 1, the isle of Wieringen was chosen as the exile location for the Prussian crown prince Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern. While his father, Emperor Wilhelm II was granted asylum in the castle of Amerongen and later Doorn, a more distant place was sought for his son. He worked on the island at a smithy, was rumored to have produced some illegitimate offspring, before he was granted clemency, and was allowed to return to Germany in 1923.

Now let's think of what separation ment before the time of television, telephone and internet. How people had to spent 40 days on an island almost constantly covered with mist. And if you did get ill, well, that was it then. Chances of recovery from cholera were small. Now compare this with the inconvenience of not going on a ski holiday. Of having theaters and musea closed. And be grateful to live in times of modern communication and public health.



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