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At Large: When staying home became a selfless act

Most of us are under quarantine now, more or less. And there’s no denying that each day is a battle — against fear, boredom, and melancholy. One comforting thought: All pandemics in history have eventually lifted. This one will too. So now we wait.

Waiting. It doesn’t come naturally, does it? When there’s a problem, our instinct is “to do something.” But in a pandemic, “doing something” makes things worse. It spreads the disease. That’s why quarantines usually need to be imposed by some outside force. At least at first.

The word “quarantine” originated during the bubonic plague or Black Death (circa 1350) and carries with it the idea of coercion. Tom Mockaitis, a professor of history at DePaul University, said in an article he wrote last month for The Hill:

Venetians banned sailors from entering their cities for 30 days, which they later extended to 40. The Italian “quaranta giorni” (literally, “40 days”) became the English “quarantine.” In some towns, officials literally sealed infected people into their houses, a harsh precursor to current admonitions to “work from” home. 

During any pandemic that persists long enough, people’s fears (and common sense) finally take over. That’s when staying home becomes voluntary. Waiting becomes the only option to risking death. But I suspect a natural sadness sets in when we realize that waiting — just waiting— is all we can do.

There’s also a wonderful element of selflessness in the quarantine. Instead of something forced on us, it can become an act of caring that we choose to do. By staying home as much as possible, we’re protecting not only ourselves but other people too. During the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, people tied white scarves to their front doors, to warn neighbors that someone inside was infected and the house was under quarantine.

These aren’t cheerful days. We all have fears about what might happen. We’re isolated and worried about loved ones — mine are ages seven to 72. There’s a shared grief for the dead and dying, and heartache for those left behind with shattered lives. It’s sad to see the local businesses that served us now dark, and people by the millions without jobs.

Despite it all, there’s still that comforting thought: So far, history is unanimous. Eventually every pandemic has lifted. Life has returned to normal, or at least to a new normal.

But for that to happen, we need to stay home. In David Mamet’s moody film masterpiece Ronin, two characters have this exchange, as if to explain a lag in the action:

Gregor: It would be nice to do something.
Sam: We are doing something. We’re sitting here, waiting.

During Covid-19, most of us are at home. There’s a lag in the action. But we are doing something. We’re waiting.

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