Book Summary: Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19

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Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19: What Pandemics Teach Us About Parenting, Work, Life, and Communities from the 1700s to Today, By Dr. Kari Nixon, PHD

Brief Overview 

The COVID pandemic struck the United States hard.  

Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19 aims to educate us and make things less painful.  History provides us many examples of how people handled a pandemic, a widespread outbreak of a disease.  It allows us to learn some basic lessons to survive on a basic human level. 

Lack of experience of deadly diseases made handling the trauma of life under COVID much more difficult.  Medical advancements made disease seem so much less scary. Hard calls like shutdowns and social distancing, far from novel in a historical sense,  seemed that much more unnecessary.  The results were in various ways quite tragic.  

The author is not a scientist.  She is an expert in medical humanities, covering medical ethics, the history of medicine and science, and medical representation in literature and popular culture.  For instance, she discusses how the author of Robinson Crusoe also wrote about how to survive a pandemic and examines Victorian medical advertising.  

Ultimately, Dr. Nixon warns if we do not learn from the past that not only the COVID virus (deemed “smart” by Press Secretary Jen Psaki) will beat us, but we will not be ready for the next disease.  And, we will, since disease is a basic part of human society.  

Favorite Quote

“In the chapters that follow, I ask you to journey through time alongside me, getting to know the amazing personalities that contributed to our (perhaps overly) plague-free life as we know it, and who remarkably did so even as plagued threatened the world as they knew it.”

This quote both summarizes the content of the book and provides a window into the enthusiasm of the author.  She talks about her love for her subject matter: disease.  Also, she sees the book as a personal journey that she is taking with you.  

The quote highlights both aspects of the book.  

Should I Read It?

This book is geared to the average reader but some might find it a tad too academic.   

It does not require special expertise in the subject matter.  But, there is a lot of material in its relatively short (less than two hundred and fifty pages, plus an extended bibliography) page count.  I was a bit overwhelmed.   You might find yourself skimming.

A helpful aspect of the book is that it is broken down into many parts.  Like the teacher she is, the book is broken down into thirty lessons.  She also includes various real-life stories, if at times imagining a few details, that took place over the historical time period of the book.  

The down-to-earth, talking to the reader (“Bear with me here.”) style is also helpful.  Her empathy, she wants to teach us some lessons, comes out as well.  

She does not use endnotes but provides footnotes directly on the pages.  There are also a few pictures.  The book ultimately has a feel of a learning experience.   Now and then, her academic leanings show (“existential sense”).   If this sort of thing is a bother, be aware.

Comprehensive Summary 

Acknowledgements

She quotes a Norwegian poem.  One translation: “Who cares about directions with a wind like that!”  Her three sets of acknowledgments is a preview for the passion she brings to the book.

Introduction 

She provides an extended introduction of both herself as a person (professor, mother, disease-lover) and her overall subject matter.  

“Disease is people.”  Disease provides us with a contrast of what our “normal selves” are supposed to be.  Over history, it causes us a lot of trauma and changes us.  We need to learn from history or be destined to suffer even more. 

Chapter 1: #ListenToWomen  

Two case studies are provided of mothers: in the 18th Century (a privileged Englishwoman who learned about vaccines from “backward” Turkey) and a poor woman in the 19th Century whose baby died of disease.  This leads to three lessons.

Listen to people you aren’t accustomed to listening to.  Public health debates have always been about a tension between individual liberty and the public good.  And, “choice” is in the eye of the beholder. The mothers had little real “choice” — they felt compelled to care for their children.

Chapter 2: The Question of Keeping Nations Thriving While People Die 

Daniel Defoe, best known for writing Robinson Crusoe, also wrote two novels about living through a plague.  She paraphrases a few portions of the two books.  

They provide some basic lessons: the importance of social distancing, the need for the economy to smoothly run even during a plague (hacks such as home delivery supplied), and the limits of statistics.  Numbers can overwhelm.  Personal stories help humanize a pandemic.


Chapter 3: Let’s Stick Together

The chapter discusses various outbreaks of the disease of cholera in 19th Century England. 

Lessons learned: the interconnected nature of society (community) brings with it contagion, it’s a fact of civilization.  Society being connected also makes us responsible for each other.  

Chapter 4: Wash Your Hands 

A Vienna General Hospital doctor finds out about the importances of cleanliness, but how he spread his findings caused him a lot of trouble. 

Lessons learned: the importance of finding common ground, how personal actions (like mask wearing) can be important for society, and how you say things can matter as much as what you say.  Effectively spreading knowledge to society is very important; being right is not enough. 

Chapter 5: Germs, Germs Everywhere 

The knowledge that germs caused disease led to some confusion, including the idea that you could simply kill all germs.  This is unrealistic.   We cannot “live in denial of death.”  And, there are even some good types of germs (like bacteria in our stomach helpful to digestion).   

Chapter 6:  Desperate Remedies and Dangerous Cures Throughout History 

Knowledge about the disease led to various outrageous claims about how they could be fought as well as fears about their dangers.  Panaceas, a supposed remedy for dangers, will always be around.  We need to carefully and realistically handle such claims.

We should not just, without careful reflection, accept something because it seems “scientific.”  Science is great.  But, it does not stop a responsibility to carefully judge the situation.   

Chapter 7: An Ethics Debate For The Ages 

This chapter brings up a familiar story: “Typhoid Mary,” a “healthy” carrier of a disease that personally was not sick, but was contagious.  Mary did not understand why she was being targeted, since she personally did not feel sick.   She was ultimately isolated, but the fact she was an mostly powerless Irish immigrant was an important reason she specifically was targeted.  

Lesson learned: Public health is both a question of personal liberties vs. shared obligations but also a matter of how we personally understand our role in society.  And, how we understand our role in society changes over time, influenced by the “zeitgeist” (spirit of the age).  

Chapter 8: The Kids Are Not All Right

The chapter deals with various snapshots of the last major pandemic on the scale of COVID-19, the 1918 influenza pandemic.  

Lessons learned: We had the information (knowledge on how to deal with a pandemic) to deal with COVID, but weren’t (especially at first) prepared to use it.  The kids are not all right: COVID continues to cause major disruption to children in particular.  And, the kids (and society in various ways) already had preventable problems that we accepted as “normal.”  

Chapter 9: The Great Social Leveler

The chapter discusses sexually transmitted diseases in Victorian England (19th Century) and 1980s United States.  Knowledge and treatment of STDs were complicated by culture and how we discussed the basic things behind the diseases.  

Lessons learned: The nature of disease, including causes and symptoms, are often far from obvious.  How we talk about “sexually transmitted disease” can determine how we look for causes (“does a STD always come from sexual contact?”).  And, it affects treatment.  Do only “other” people get a disease (like AIDS)?  Does “sexual” mean sex habits alone factor in?  

Chapter 10: The Hot Zone

This chapter discusses how Ebola was discussed, including exaggerations of just how dangerous it could be as well as the problems of using a place name (Africa) as a label.  

Lessons learned: A name of a disease can mislead — it can make it seem that it is only limited to a certain location (“Ebola”) or community (“gay disease”).  Fear of the “other” can lead to irrational beliefs and denial of the truth.  Prejudice itself is a form of disease.  

Conclusion: COVID-19’s Darkest Timeline 

The book concludes by offering three general things necessary for our well-being.

We are all an interconnected community; we cannot divide and conquer. We need to use creativity, which can be found all over, not just from scientists.  And, we need to be able to communicate with each other, even if it might be outside of our comfort zone to do so.  

Points To Ponder 

The author expresses her passion for the study of disease, which to her is ultimately a history of ourselves.  She supports a “middle path” between denying the dangers of disease and being too scared of them.  Is this possible? How do you handle doing that?  

She also expresses how her in depth research of the past has led her to feel a close connection to people she investigates.  Victorians are close to her heart.  When you study history, do you feel a comparable attachment to people who live in the past?  Are they like a character in a favorite novel, perhaps, that seem like close friends?  Or does it just seem weird to you?  

About the Author

Book Website

The author of this book is Dr. Kari Nixon, PHD (website).   

Dr. Nixon has one other book, a more academic affair, entitled Kept from All Contagions: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact in Late Nineteenth-Century Literature.  

Nixon specializes in social reactions to infectious diseases with particular emphasis on Victorian literature and popular culture.  She teaches at Whitworth University.  

As her academic title shows, she has a doctorate and is not a medical doctor.  

Nixon’s website had a lot of content, including video.  I listened to one of her discussions about her book and found her down-to-earth and a good promoter of her content.  

Is the Book Reliable?

The author covers ground for which she has clear expert knowledge.  Her personal insights arise from her expertise.  I found the book reliable.  It is also well sourced.  

By Joe Cocurullo

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