What Is Time, Anyway?
Albert researches quarantines past and present and poses an important thought experiment: would Benjamin Disraeli have been good at Super Mario 3D?
Greetings from Day 10 of quarantine in Taiwan!
As we mentioned last week, we’ll formally relaunch A Broad and Ample Road in October, and have paused payments until then. When we do, the core newsletter will remain the same, but you’ll receive some options involving other new parts of the newsletter: Mandarin translations of select pieces, bilingual Taipei-based news on arts and music, and a broad collection of observations from Asia. We’re grateful to Substack Local for supporting this work, and to you for joining us on this journey.
Albert: The history of quarantine, live from quarantine
One week down, one week to go. As Michelle mentioned last week, quarantine here in Taiwan is incredibly strict. I’ve now received text messages twice from the central health authorities because my phone got too close to the front door of our hotel room. (Since March 2020, the government has been using “electronic fences” to monitor people’s activities.) Michelle continues to get daily calls from a nice, though not menacing, “handler.” One day, when she was taking a nap and had forgotten to charge her phone, he called me instead to politely remind me that she needed to have her phone on, or else police would come knocking on our door.
Speaking of naps, they seem to occupy most of our days now. We sleep in three-hour chunks, basically, and keep a mostly nocturnal schedule, though that doesn’t stop us from looking at each other at odd times of day and asking, “Do you want to take a nap now?” We haven’t even tried to adjust to the new time zone. We try to keep tabs on the baby’s sleep schedule, but this too tends to devolve into exchanges like this one:
– What time did Baby fall asleep last night?
– I don’t remember. Do you remember?
– What is time, anyway?
It could be worse, I remind myself. Hong Kong requires twenty-one days of hotel quarantine and six tests—six!—for travelers from the U.S. We’re also faring pretty well compared to historical quarantines. Alex Chase-Levenson’s great new book, The Yellow Flag: Quarantine and the British Mediterranean World, 1780–1860, tells the origin story of our modern quarantine system, which he locates in the dramatic and transformational public health crises created by the Revolutionary Wars of the late eighteenth century. Fearing “Asiatic cholera,” “Oriental plague,” and other diseases, Europe subjected all travelers and goods coming from the Ottoman Empire and North Africa to a nearly month-long quarantine until the middle of the nineteenth century. This legal mandate led to the creation of a system of lazarettos at ports throughout the Mediterranean. Malta, it turns out, was the “quarantine port of choice” for the British Empire, so a substantial amount of traffic was routed through there.
Chase-Levenson provides fascinating details about specific quarantine practices. First, the disinfection that accompanied disembarking from the ship:
Sometimes, passengers themselves were fumigated (and not simply their clothes)… During this process, passengers were often stripped and consigned to a room without ventilation. In the middle of this room, aromatic wood and herbs were burned until the individuals subjected to this cleansing came close to asphyxiation. Kept “coughing and sneezing all the evening,” [wrote] Claudius Shaw, a Briton who underwent the spoglio at Malta in 1810. [He] insisted, “I never wish to be disinfected again.”
Compared to almost choking to death, getting sprayed down with alcohol last week by friendly hazmat-suited Taipei airport staffers certainly doesn’t seem so rough.
I was also interested in how people quarantining in the nineteenth century passed the time, and Chase-Levenson doesn’t disappoint:
To ward off the common complaint of boredom, travelers practiced a similar set of activities. Many travel narratives record time in quarantine spent writing letters, reading, and attempting to use the solitude to complete work that had long been put off. Francis Hervé managed to pass hours each day touching up some of the paintings he had begun while in Anatolia. The French author and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote the entirety of his Notes on Serbia while in quarantine at Semlin, and Benjamin Disraeli drafted the novels Contarini Fleming and Alroy in quarantine at Malta, crowing in a letter to his father about the “quantity I have planned and written.” (Disraeli also claimed quarantine enabled him ﬁnally to “understand politics” from reading old copies of Galignani’s Messenger that were lying around the lazaretto.)
There’s an aspirational goal for us in the next seven days, I guess: maybe we can finish drafts of our books and finally “understand history” or “understand the law.” But Disraeli probably didn’t have a two-year-old with him! (I looked in Chase-Levenson’s book for any mention of traveling children in nineteenth-century quarantine, but no luck. If anybody has any leads on the topic, please send them along!)
I also looked up the history of quarantine in Taiwan: the European system arrived here via Japanese imperialism in the late nineteenth century, when the third plague pandemic swept through East Asia. The plague arrived in Taiwan in 1894; Japan colonized Taiwan the following year, establishing five quarantine ports throughout the country almost immediately. You can find more echoes from the past in a great photo gallery curated by the Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica. One picture shows police stationed just outside the door of a house under quarantine, preventing people from entering or exiting their rooms.
During that pandemic, distrust and fearmongering abounded. During outbreaks, colonial authorities requisitioned temples and small huts as temporary housing. Anybody who looked sick—including those who seemed depressed or angry—were quarantined by force. As you can imagine, widespread resentment abounded as well; in particular, rumors proliferated that the new medical practices were designed to harm and even kill, in turn reinforcing belief in traditional medicine practices.
Was anyone exempt from quarantine? The controversy over Nicole Kidman, who arrived in Hong Kong this summer and was seen shopping two days later, has earlier echoes in the lives of counts, the celebrities of yesteryear: I’m reminded of an account of a cholera outbreak in Richard Ross’s excellent Contagion in Prussia, 1831. A certain Count Orloff, aide-de-camp to Czar Nicholas I, passed through Prussia without observing quarantine. The King of Prussia rebuked him, and a public relations outcry ensued. The Prussian press joined in, questioning the “loyalty” of the border officials for allowing a Russian to skip quarantine.
A common theme in all pandemics is the disproportionate effect of quarantine on the poor and the dispossessed. Chase-Levenson writes that the wealthy could pay for “comfortable apartments” in Malta; in their travelogues, even aristocrats were surprised by how “commodious” their living spaces were. On the other hand, returning Hajjis, seasonal laborers, and itinerant peasants were either forced to remain on their ships, or they were packed into tiny rooms, or they were shuffled off into large plague hospitals, where death rates were highest.
This is—bet you didn’t see this coming—no different from the current pandemic. While looking for quarantine hotels in Taiwan we came across some incredibly fancy options, including a hotel that charges up to $350 a night and offers gluten-free meals, in-room treadmill delivery, and games for children. Meanwhile, migrant workers in Taiwan—already in Taiwan, not even new entrants into the country—have been subjected to incredibly draconian restrictions, especially during the COVID outbreak from late May to early August. Ying-Yu Alicia Chen of Equal Times talked to a Filipina who works for the world’s largest chip packaging and testing manufacturer and who
shares a cramped room with six double-bunk beds and 11 other workers in Zhongli, north-west Taiwan. There are suitcases and personal belongings piled up, with clothes hung up to dry inside the room… For 30 days between 7 June and 6 July she was not allowed to go outside of her dormitory except to go to work. She had to return to her dormitory within one hour of finishing her shift.
Michael Turton also reports in the Taipei Times on the horrible living conditions for migrant workers locked in their own dorms:
At one dorm I know of, which Apple Daily reported on, the workers had been restricted to washing clothes between 10am and 2pm, meaning that 30 to 40 people were crammed into the laundry at any moment during that time, a clear health risk. In another dorm the broker circulated rules forbidding anyone from leaving, saying that shopping could only be performed by designated shoppers.
All of this reminds me that we’ve been incredibly lucky: even though our visas were delayed by a couple of months, we haven’t had to endure the precarity and uncertainty that many others face. Taiwanese journalists have also reported a series of increasingly restrictive and punitive regulations imposed on migrant laborers, which has led to a labor shortage. These unjust practices need to be contested, and we hope to use this space to cover more migrant rights issues in the future. We welcome any tips or leads about where to begin. You know where to find us.
(If you missed her note from last week about playing video games in quarantine, it’s here.)
On the fifth day of quarantine, not long after I'd annihilated Bowser and his minions, I learned that my incarcerated client's parole had been taken away and that he had to appear before an en banc board (basically, twenty or so parole commissioners). He was worried, I was worried. It was bad. Returning to the real world was a shock. As I scrambled to put together something on his behalf, I spoke with him about many things, including quarantine and how he feels about comparisons to prison. He's glad more people know what it’s like to be stuck in one place, he said, to not leave, to have to stare at your own stuff all the time. “Now imagine,” he continued, “having to do it in a place the size of your hotel room’s bathroom.”
In other news, Baby Phoebe continues to become what Albert calls a “world-class Peppa Pig scholar.” I hope the brain damage isn't irreversible. Meanwhile, in quarantine I make my bed (I never do in real life), I let Phoebe jump on it (okay, we jump on it together), and I do yoga (rare for me: I who say “Namaste” only ironically have now done so many sun salutations that I've lost count. You're welcome, sun!).
October Book Club: An Ideal Presence
We’re excited to talk to you about An Ideal Presence, written by Eduardo Berti, translated from French by Daniel Levin Becker and published by a wonderful new independent press, Fern Books. The book is structured as a series of brief accounts of people who work or volunteer in a palliative care unit in Rouen, France. This includes nurses and doctors, as well as aides, porters, a volunteer musician, a volunteer reader, and custodial staff. I know the material might sound depressing—it’s about those who care for the dying, after all—but the straightforward dignity of these caretakers is mesmerizing. (There’s a virtual event at Third Place Books featuring Berti and Levin Becker tomorrow Sept. 20 at 2 PM PST.) If you’re interested in our book club, which always takes place the last week of the month, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome! For those looking ahead, in November we’ll talk about Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
Regarding children and quarantine, perhaps the most heartless inequity in quarantine policy involved family separations in early 20th century New York, typically affecting poorer migrant families who were unable to isolate children with smallpox or polio. See e.g., https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-new-york-separated-immigrant-families-smallpox-outbreak-1901-180971211/ And inequities of family separation during a 1916 polio outbreak in New York is mentioned here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/short-history-of-quarantine/