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In Quarantine

Paul Lombardo*

In pre-COVID days: Dr. Paul Lombardo (right)
with SIUT's Director, Dr. Adib Rizvi, in Karachi

As many have learned recently, it was in the medieval Mediterranean port of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik, that the idea of “quarantine” first gained its current meaning. As the Italian origin of the word suggests, arriving ships would be commanded to anchor in port for a period of forty days to allow any pestilence carried by the ship’s passengers to run its course. 

Today marks the fortieth day I have stayed in my home, and while many call this period quarantine, it hardly merits that descriptor.  The new regimen is challenging, but could hardly be called oppressive. Since I fall into the category of “vulnerable” senior citizens, the expectation is that I will remain isolated, but I am allowed to teach remotely from home through various computer technologies. I feel no coercion, and while I am barred from access to closed businesses or entertainment venues, there are few other restrictions. I may leave the house to pick up groceries, or take a walk, or even travel to my university office, if I wish.  It is recommended that I keep an appropriately safe physical distance from others, and to wear a face mask when outdoors.  To one accustomed to scholarly solitude, these restrictions feel like a very minor sacrifice.

My professional reading consists of a constant flood of debate over who should get protective equipment, or even more rare and expensive mechanical ventilators. While these are necessary discussions and concrete concerns, we who live in privileged surroundings have little to complain about, when so many around us, even in this wealthy country, deal with much more dire conditions. For the rest of the world, shortages of medical equipment are daily fare even in the best of times.

More to the point, for more than two billion people in the world, where clean water is not available even to drink, washing hands to ward off pathogens would be a luxury. In contrast to the conditions we consider a hardship, simply having adequate housing in which one might be confined would be an improvement for more than 1.5 billion, almost five times the population of our entire country. We chafe at enduring forty days of sacrifice; the deprivations that define their quarantine span generations.

We often spend inordinate time in bioethics arguing about the need for personal autonomy. The current pandemic and the predictable tragedies of famine and civil disruption that follow will unfortunately remind us even more dramatically that we have yet to spend sufficient time focusing on injustice.


* Paul A. Lombardo, Professor of Law, Georgia State University, Georgia, USA, Associate Faculty, CBEC

Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture, Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation
7th Floor, Transplant Tower, Yaqoob Khan Road, Near Civil Hospital, Karachi 74200, Pakistan
Phone: (92 21) 9921 6957