Raymond Malewitz: We should be wary of quarantines to stop the coronavirus

Summary: As China and the international community coordinate their responses to the coronavirus, their actions should be governed only by concern for the health and well-being of affected peoples and nations.

Raymond Malewitz.jpg
Raymond Malewitz mug. The Washington Post
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To contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Chinese government has imposed a quarantine on more than 50 million people in the central province of Hubei. While the scope of this policy might seem unprecedented, authorities in California and neighboring states in 1924 adopted similar measures to manage an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

A highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus affecting cattle, sheep, hogs and other hoofed animals, FMD (not to be confused with hand, foot and mouth disease in humans) presented a direct threat to California's livestock populations. Both the state and federal governments responded to the outbreak in ways that temporarily suspended civil rights. Like the crisis in Hubei, this history raises important questions regarding legitimate and illegitimate uses of governmental power during outbreaks.

From February to August 1924, more than 200 state and federal veterinary agents managed the slaughter and burial of 58,791 cattle, 21,195 hogs, 28,383 sheep, 1,391 goats and 22,214 deer. Through emergency powers granted to them by state and federal governments, they were charged with regulating the movements and behaviors of Californians, who, as historian Kendrick A. Clements writes, "found themselves increasingly subject to a sort of house arrest" during these months.



Though the virus was rarely transmissible to humans, an increasingly mobile human population brought the virus with them wherever they traveled — on their clothes, skin, shoes and even automobile tires. By late March, the virus had rapidly spread from West Berkeley to neighboring counties before entering the Central Valley on the boots of a cattle salesman. To prevent the expansion of the epizootic (a widespread animal disease), ports in Hawaii, Mexico and Canada were closed to Californian steamships, and by April 1, neighboring states had adopted what was described as a "ring of steel" policy restricting the movement of humans and goods across state lines.

Life under quarantine was not pretty. Farmers in infected areas witnessed agents clad in rubber boots, coats, hats and gloves digging trenches on their land for the mass burial of their slaughtered animals. They were also watched by armed guards posted at the entrances of their properties, who restricted access into and out of private lands.

Motorists encountered similar restrictions. The Pacific Highway from California into Oregon was closed to motorists who lacked California state-sponsored fumigation certificates. Hastily erected fences were stretched across county lines to block inter-county travel. Search and disinfection stations were established at checkpoints between counties considered infected and uninfected. National forests were closed and public gatherings were banned.

More disturbingly, the federal government and its state counterparts seized the opportunity presented by this emergency to target political enemies. The International Workers of the World (IWW) called for a boycott of Californian goods, under the impression that the disease could be spread to its workers in California and other states. In retaliation, officials quoted in the Los Angeles Times instructed state residents to keep a look out for "'footloose wobblies'" — or union members "bent upon penetrating infected areas and gathering materials that can be used to spread the disease in unaffected parts of the state," which was an accusation unsupported by evidence.

On June 20, U.S. Attorney G.L. Fink reported that the organization had used "infected dogs" to bring the disease to Los Angeles County in response to criminal syndicalism laws put in place there after the Wheatland hop riot of 1913. In response to this perceived threat, he told the New York Times that he would "round up" IWW members in Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Arizona.

While Congress was at work passing federal immigration legislation barring entry to immigrants deemed undesirable, a similarly dubious practice of exclusion was imposed on a state level. Working without coordination with California or the federal government, Arizona officials persuaded members of the Quechan Indian Tribe, whose territory spanned both sides of the Colorado River, to erect barriers on the California side of the El Centro to Yuma California State Highway, leaving motorists without food or water and, according to outraged California officials, creating the conditions of a humanitarian crisis.

The Democratic governor of Arizona, George W.P. Hunt, was no friend of the California government, having battled with the Republican-led state over water rights on the Colorado River for years. Hunt expressed sympathy for the stranded motorists but insisted that "my oath and conscience would never let me waver one bit toward lifting the quarantine. Arizona's safety lies in keeping the terrible cattle disease out of this State and what is for the good of Arizona holds sway in my heart" — a pledge he was willing to back up with force. Arizona police officers even turned fire hoses on motorists from California who attempted to break the blockade.

The day after this failed border crossing, California officials assembled an iron fumigation shed 14 miles to the west of Yuma, where, under blazing-hot conditions, automobiles were sprayed with formaldehyde, people were bathed and luggage, clothes and automobiles were steamed before gaining permission to enter Arizona. After the 800 Californians gained entry, the blockade was reestablished and rumors circulated that Arizona guards would attempt to reestablish the barriers on the California side of the river. A regional California sheriff inflamed these tensions, insisting that California Gov. Friend Richardson had given him "full police powers" to commandeer "guns and ammunition . . . to oppose the threatened invasion" to reestablish the blockade on the California side of the border.


Tempers remained high as arrest warrants were ordered for Californians charged with smuggling mules and racehorses across the river into Arizona; resolutions were proposed barring Californians from leaving trains while traveling through Arizona; and angry California residents blocked the Topock Bridge into their state in response to Arizona's blockade on eastbound traffic.

This heated situation began to cool soon afterward as the epizootic started to wane and quarantine restrictions were relaxed. By the end of June, the culling of livestock was discontinued, state and county borders were reopened and Californians began to take stock of what had just happened.

As the events of 1924 suggest, viral outbreaks in human and animal populations raise profound questions regarding the power that state and federal governments wield over their citizenry in the name of biosecurity. These questions gain greater urgency in our current moment, in which the challenges of managing increasingly mobile human and animal populations can (and have) justified ever more restrictive national and international responses to the coronavirus outbreak, and where the populations involved number in the millions rather than in the thousands.

Some responses may serve the legitimate function of containing the spread of dangerous pathogens. But as the threats to the IWW and the "invasion" rhetoric at the Arizona border suggest, they can also advance or replay larger political battles. As China and the international community coordinate their responses to the coronavirus, their actions should be governed only by concern for the health and well-being of affected peoples and nations.

Raymond Malewitz is associate professor of literature and director of the graduate program in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film at Oregon State University.

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