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Chinese police officers wearing masks stand in front of the Tiananmen Gate on January 26.
Chinese police officers wearing masks stand in front of the Tiananmen Gate on January 26. Betsy Joles/Getty Images

With Chinese authorities warning the coronavirus outbreak is accelerating, placing millions of people in more than a dozen Chinese cities under intense travel restrictions might seem like a good idea.

But historically a mass quarantine is an aggressive response that’s far from perfect. In the past it has led to political, financial and social consequences. 

Quarantines date back to Italy in the 1300s, as the bubonic plague ravaged Europe. In Venice, sailors and ships coming from infected ports were made to wait 40 days before docking in a practice called “quaranta giorni,” or “40 days.”

No quarantine goes perfectly: People criticize quarantines because in practice a virus or bacteria “invariably gets loose,” as do people, said Howard Markel, professor and director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

Logistical issues: Just the word “quarantine” can cause panic or hysteria, Markel said. Anyone concerned about a common cold or sniffle will head for hospitals, straining already precious resources. Wuhan officials have already acknowledged local hospitals were struggling to accommodate people seeking medical attention.

Broader financial consequences: Quarantines “are often very economically and financially costly,” said Alexandre White, an assistant professor of sociology and the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins…

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