Q:I see doctors and pastors on the Internet who challenge the need for quarantine and social distancing. They say that quarantine was historically only for people who were sick, so if we don’t have COVID-19, we shouldn’t be “locked down.” Are quarantine and social isolation really necessary for our health?
A:Navigating the Internet is challenging. Separating fact from opinion is daunting. We live in a prophetic “age of confusion.” In response to your question, we present biblical and historical perspectives of quarantine.
Most authorities cite the Bible as the most ancient documentation of restricted social interaction to limit the spread of disease. Leviticus contains divine instructions for evaluating and physically (socially) distancing individuals thought to be harboring potentially serious contagious diseases. Such people were barred from associating with others for seven days, and if their situation remained unresolved over that time, a second seven-day separation was enforced.
Coincidentally, in those days 14-day physical distancing was not a novel, human concept but rather a biblical prescription. Should an individual be diagnosed or confirmed to be acutely infected, they would be disallowed free access to society and required to broadcast aloud that they were “unclean” whenever in a public space (see Lev. 13:1-46). Furthermore, ceremonially unclean individuals could not congregate or be involved in communal worship activity.
Despite claims to the contrary, the most reliable evidence is that COVID-19 is a serious contagious disease. For a while, how it was spread was largely unknown, testing for infection was inadequate or unavailable, and the infectiousness and number of asymptomatic carriers was merely speculative; everyone became a potential case! So, to interrupt the spread, it was prudent to apply social distancing and various forms of preventive hygiene, as the Bible also describes and prescribes (see Lev. 15).
In today’s language, persons in biblical times who were suspected of disease were “quarantined,” and confirmed cases were placed in “medical isolation.” Both involved physical (social) distancing and meticulous hygiene. Moreover, quarantined or medically isolated individuals were disallowed from the Hebrew equivalent of going to church.
The Bible describes the concept and practice of quarantine, but doesn’t give it a name. The word “quarantine” (from quarantina, or“40 days”) was coined in Venice in 1448. Before that time, ships were held offshore for 30 days (trentena) to curtail the spread of the bubonic plague (Black Death). The “trentena” was not completely effective since the plague’s time course from infection to death averaged 37 days; thus, we have “quarantina.” As people learned more and “knew better,” they “did better.” Today, we can ignore history or learn from and prudently build on it. For example, we now can be physically distanced but still socially connected—a win-win.
God cares for us; we care for others; we don’t put them at unnecessary risk. While protecting others, we protect ourselves. It’s inconvenient and costly, very costly, sacrificially costly. Yet Christ’s followers are motivated by love and compassion for all, especially the most vulnerable (see Matt. 25:31-46). After all, aren’t we our brother’s and sister’s keeper?
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.