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You Keep Using That Word

Richard Parkes Bonington, Riva degli Schiavoni, 1826.

1,320 words

Quarantine, quarantine, quarantine.

The Internet™ loves talking about the “quarantine.” It was one of the most popular terms used on Google during the month of March in the United States, a search for the term on Twitter returns millions of unfunny shitposts, and the Cool Wine Aunts of Facebook have indubitably been sharing plenty of deep-fried memes about just how much they’ve been drinking during “quarantine.” It’s a frame of reference that almost everyone in the world with internet access can relate to given the current global situation.

There’s just one problem. “Quarantine” does not mean what these people think it means.

“Quarantine” is not a societal lockdown. “Quarantine” is not a stay-at-home order, a shutdown of workplaces, or physical distancing measures. The definition of the word “quarantine” from Merriam-Webster is a state of enforced isolation; historically, a period in which a ship is kept in isolation — the quara coming from the Venetian practice of keeping a docked ship’s crewmembers and goods aboard for 40 days to prevent anyone with the plague from entering the city. To quarantine an individual, conveyance, city, state, or country means to completely sever its connections with the world around it for a period of time necessary to ascertain whether or not an infectious disease is present in the relevant population. The term is recognizable in English, and indelibly associated with epidemic response measures. Unfortunately, it’s been newspeaked into a nebulous catch-all term that broadly refers to any and all measures undertaken by a government to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

“Ah, Mr. Bakewell, you’re falling into your old habit of proscriptive etymology again!”

Well, yes, I’ll readily admit my academic background in linguistics can lead me to such patterns of behavior. However, I’ve also been known to throw around words like slumped, yeet, sesh, and based on the Internet. Neologisms and slang do not frighten me. (It comes with the territory of being young.) No, I am upset about the bastardization of the Q-word for a wholly different reason. As mentioned, the term is one that the Anglosphere immediately recognizes as being related to epidemic response. During the SARS outbreak, apartment buildings, airplane passengers, shops, and more were quarantined, and the media reported these quarantines as such. When the word “quarantine” is thrown around, it has an air of legitimacy, one of tried-and-true historical value. If you shut the city gates, nobody can leave or enter, and the situation can be contained and dealt with. Human societies have responded to infectious disease in this manner for a very long time, and to great success.

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A “quarantine” didn’t happen with this virus. Sure, Wuhan — and eventually the entire province of Hubei — was quarantined in the true sense of the word. But not before 5 million people had already left the city. With them, they carried the virus, and the trajectory of the pandemic within China and eventually the rest of the world closely mirrors the movement of people from outside of Hubei province prior to its January 23rd closure.

World governments failed to act in the most egregious way possible. The United States didn’t shut its border to infected territories, like China or the Schengen Area, until January 31st and March 12th respectively — despite an index case in the US already being confirmed, on January 21st. The same pattern repeated itself in many different countries, with border closures being put into place long after the virus was already present in the relevant jurisdiction. There’s certainly not much you can do about it then, right?

Well, no.

There’s contact tracing, quarantine of affected cities, counties, or states, and actual quarantine facilities used to isolate the sick or those entering the country. None of these things were done in the United States and most of Europe. In fact, the United States shuttered nearly all of its quarantine facilities years ago, leaving the country in a scramble to determine how to house those entering the country now.

Just about every safeguard against infectious disease in the West has slowly gone out the door in favor of making global economic cooperation less expensive and more feasible. Entering Western countries has been made easier and easier in the past several decades, with consequences we are all too familiar with: massive numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have entered white countries since such a thing was declared a priority in the mid-century. The globalized institutions we’re supposed to trust to handle things like viral outbreaks, such as the WHO, have proven themselves to not be very trustworthy at all. In fact, they seem to be eager to play ball for other nation’s agendas; it’s almost as if any “global” organization inevitably becomes an arm for a global superpower’s machinations.

So, once the virus had snaked its way into the United States, there was little in the way of infrastructure or manpower to help stop it in its tracks. Thus begun the grand experiment of shutting down just about everything.

The shutdowns we have been observing around the world are measures without historical precedent. They incur massive costs of their own, in the form of destroyed livelihoods, social isolation, and a general breakdown of order and normalcy.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that work stinks, and that the present state of affairs presents opportunities both metapolitical and personal. But it would be foolish to think that the average white person shares our big-brain, philosophical take on this. Sure, the opportunity for metapolitical change is there. But have we made anything of it? I’m not so sure — it seems like the average American is a little more concerned over how they’re going to feed their children at this stage in the game. And assuming that the present situation will reach some kind of breaking point and people will turn to radical action is also assuming that the folks in charge don’t know how to get a handle on a rowdy population. They most certainly do.

The shutdown in the United States being referred to colloquially, and occasionally professionally, as a “quarantine” is one such example. A comforting homage to the methods that worked in containing diseases in the past gives people the impression that this state of affairs is somehow orthodox. As far as millions of Tweeters are concerned, the situation is, to varying degrees, under control. Most of the discourse on the Right about the virus has been very self-serving. The most common theses have been making the obvious connection between open borders and the spread of it, or, in some cases, arguing that the real risk posed by this disease is not as high as some would like you to believe. I withhold judgment of either of these strategies on their merit; I’m not here to argue these points. The real ground that the Right can cover here ought to be demonstrating to people just how insidious the words of the global elite can be. You are not under “quarantine.” You are under measures that have created a very convenient laboratory for the elites to determine just how much they can distort our language and run the show from the shadows. There is a lot that our enemies stand to gain from this state of affairs, despite how inconvenient it might have been for them from the outset.

Rather than attempt to work with their lexicon and assumptions, let’s deconstruct them, and show people that this situation was far from inevitable. We aren’t the ones panicking or manipulating; we’re the ones with answers.

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 21, 2020 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.

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