The practice of isolating people and goods to halt the spread of disease dates at least to the 14th century, when ships arriving in Venice during the plague epidemic were required to anchor off the coast for 40 days. The isolation period gave rise to the term quarantine, from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Professor Hodge said quarantines could be effective if they selectively isolate only those who have been infected or are suspected of infection. The response in Wuhan, with the establishment of a “cordon sanitaire”-type boundary, goes much further than that.
“Quarantine would be saying ‘You can’t leave your own home, can’t go to school, work or church,’” he said. But the Chinese authorities “have drawn a line around this city and said, ‘No one in and no one out.’ That type of thing is obviously an excessive response.”
In recent years, governments have imposed other large-scale measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Sierra Leone, a country of about seven million people, said “everybody” was expected to stay indoors for three days in September 2014, as 7,000 teams of health and community workers went door to door to find hidden Ebola patients.
Earlier that year, Liberian officials placed West Point, a sprawling slum in Monrovia where 60,000 to 120,000 people were crammed into shacks, under an Ebola quarantine. The order led to deadly clashes with soldiers and may have helped to spread the disease, experts said, forcing people to crowd together for basic humanitarian aid.
During the SARS outbreak of 2003, Canadian health officials asked anyone in Ontario who had even one symptom of the respiratory infection to stay home for a few days out of fear that the disease might spread during the Easter holiday weekend.