Essays

Failure to Quarantine and Literature

Failure to Quarantine and LiteratureFailure to Quarantine and Literature

Currently we’re facing a, now, pandemic of the hemorrhagic virus Ebola. The virus is far from being the first of its kind or the first pandemic. We’ve had bird flu, swine flu, H1N1, small pox, cow-pox, chicken pox, yellow fever, malaria, HIV, Chagas disease, the plague, and so many more diseases spread across the Earth, some have been more deadly than others.

Just to vent, I’m ticked that there is an Ebola case in the United States. I used to work in healthcare. I know how to properly quarantine and any health care worker should. Why then was a man allowed to leave an infected area before the incubation period of the disease was over? Why was he allowed to leave at all? A general rule of thumb when you’re trying to control a disease is nobody in and nobody out. If you happen to find yourself in an infected area, you stay there, until the disease has been contained. It’s harsh, but if you really, really, really want to try to prevent a spread of the disease, that’s how you do it. Granted, you can’t always control some factors. There might still be animals that would carry your disease across borders. There is always someone or some group that screws up containment procedures.

Without these someones and some groups, we’d all be a lot happier, but that’s just not how it works. It happens. Sometimes it’s an accident; sometimes it’s deliberate; sometimes it’s purely ignorance. Back in the day people didn’t know that you shouldn’t bury your dead close to the town water supply. It took time to learn those things and to develop the study of epidemiology. There is always someone or some event that breaks the quarantine that others try so carefully to maintain.

Failure to Quarantine and LiteratureThis seems to be a known factor of the universe and writers have used it repeatedly. I am Legend, Oryx and Crake, Daisy Miller, The Poisonwood Bible, Children of Men, The Scarlet Plague, Year of Wonders, and The Year of the Flood are just a few of the books I’ve read that concern failure to follow proper procedures to prevent contraction of a disease. Heck, even the Twilightseries has a nod to the early 1900s outbreak of Spanish Influenza. There are references to failures of quarantine all over literature. Not too long ago I read one of the Sherlock Holmes tales that has a reference to an outbreak of Yellow Fever in the Southern United States. Our lives, and thus our media, have often revolved around outbreaks of disease.

Before we knew how to control these diseases, lives stopped. Life as you knew it stopped. You weren’t sure if you were going to live or die. Attitudes about life changed. People became really desensitized to death from contagious disease. Oh, your mother died of the plague…mine too. You lost all your siblings to Tuberculosis? Well, an entire branch of my family is gone from Typhoid.

Remember the skit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail about the “Bring out your dead,” but the guy wasn’t dead yet? The comedy troupe poked fun at the black plague, but really, they probably weren’t that far off from the attitudes of the day.

Before we figured disease out to the extent that we have today, I’m sure there is much more for us to learn, our lives were ruled by disease. Some of our most famous leaders in history almost bit the bullet because of various disease, for example,  Queen Elizabeth I contracted small pox. It was lucky that she lived.

Disease became a great equalizer in history. The rich people died of it and the poor people died of it. Just FYI, it was the rich people who did a lot of the disease-spreading. When they heard that a highly contagious and highly deadly disease was in their city, they packed their bags and left, carrying the contagion with them. The idea was to get away from the disease, but they didn’t know enough about it to know that they were just spreading it around.

Just because we know more about disease these days, doesn’t mean that we handle it exponentially better, well, we do in the scientific sense, but in the psychological sense, we don’t. In a more recent post about Laurel Lee and her battle with cancer, I mentioned that some people can’t deal with the idea of being around someone who has cancer or a chronic disease. We may think we’ve progressed to this amazingly enlightened place when treating disease, but many of us still have a strong fear of disease, no matter what it is. I think we should actually keep that fear to an extent. That fear is the thing that is going to keep us from smoking when we know it can cause cancer and coughing on people with depressed immune systems when we have a cold.

Failure to Quarantine and LiteratureThe downside to keeping a fear of disease is that we panic. We panic and think we can hide or run from a disease. If we try to run, we take the disease with us. We listen to misconceptions about the disease. People used to think that Malaria was caused by bad night air. In the book Daisy Miller, everyone assumed that Daisy had ridden through a bad patch of air, when the only thing that happened was that she was bitten by a mosquito. In the end, someone probably should have just given the girl a citronella candle. Give Daisy Miller a citronella candle; Daisy Miller loves citronella candles.

There are misconceptions about our current pandemic. I know you may scoff at my usage of the word pandemic because Ebola isn’t incredibly wide-spread and only several thousand people have contracted it so far this year, but the way I see it, it’s left one continent and gone to another. I don’t care if it’s only one or two people who have it; for me, the definition of the word, means that it’s spread to more than its original land. We are by no means in a panic mode and shouldn’t be. Some people say the disease is airborne, it isn’t. A person has to be in contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids in order to catch the virus.

Now, that I’ve assuaged some of your fears, let me give you some fear back. If you work in healthcare, in the trenches, it’s very difficult to avoid getting bodily fluids on your person. I worked in a nursing home for three years. I watched the flu spread through the nursing home like wild-fire on several occasions. We handled it the best we could, but due to the factor that the administration would never allow quarantine to be enforced the way it should be and the fact that we never had enough sterile supplies, the flu spread and whipped everyone’s butt.

Theoretically, if there is a virus going around your healthcare facility, you’re supposed to wear sterile clothing to go into each room to take care of each patient. That means, before you go into the room, you put on gloves, a face mask, a gown, booties, goggles perhaps, and maybe a cap; it really depends on what disease you’re dealing with. You put all of that one before you go into the room.  Then you go in and you administer to your patient, being very careful to avoid getting bodily fluids on yourself, then you take all of that stuff off when you get back outside of the room and throw it away, preferably in a biohazard bag..

Now, if there are two patients in the same room, you probably shouldn’t touch one of them after just having touched the other patient in the room. So it’s a good idea to switch your gear out between patients. Your sterile gear should not be worn for more than one visit to one patient. Got it? Well, here’s the thing–that’s a heck of a lot of gowns, gloves, booties, masks, and goggles. In an average shift, you’re probably going to go into a patient’s room at least three times, but if they’re throwing up, you’re probably going to go in there more often. How many patients do you have? How many employees do you have? You must have a giant stockpile of sterile gear  when a disease hits a facility.

Ideally, you try your hardest to keep it on one wing. You close your double doors to your hallway and none of your patients go through those double doors unless they have to go to the hospital. You yourself limit your comings and goings. In fact, ideally, you probably shouldn’t leave the hallway at all, but we do have standard working hours and OSHA regulations and such. So care takers do get to leave the hallway. At the very minimum, you should wear sterile gear on the hallway and take it off when you go off your hallway and get new gear each time you go on your hallway, but sometimes, there aren’t even enough supplies for that.

I know we, in first-world countries, ask ourselves, “How could this disease have spread so far if we know how it spreads and can prevent it?” I just explained to you why. There isn’t enough proper equipment and there aren’t enough proper facilities. Nobody in Africa has a giant stockpile of biohazard suits.

Years from now, when this is over, someone’s going to write about. They’re going to write a story inspired by our current Ebola problem. Heck, they’re probably writing about it right now, just as I am. There will be more books and more stories on par with the books I mentioned earlier. We’ll have more stories about disease. We’ll have more stories about pandemics and people turning into zombies because of XYZ contagion. Someone is going to remember the scare that was in the air during 2014 with regards to Ebola and it’s going to factor heavily into a new work of literature. The atmosphere hanging in the air now is something we’re going to remember and we’re going to write about it.

Expect to see more pandemic books in the future, but also, seriously, wash your hands and limit your contact with sick people.



attidues toward disease, chagas, children of men, contagious disease in literature, disease, disease and literature, disease in literature, ebola, Failure to Quarantine and Literature, fear of disease, HIV, I am legend, literature, malaria, oryx and crake, pandemic, panic caused by outbreak, plague, quarantine, world war z, year of the flood, year of wonders, yellow fever
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