When Quarantine is Not Isolation

When does COVID-induced quarantine become a moment to transcend the feeling of isolation? When that quarantine actually brings you out of the confining societal silos that keep people apart. In many countries, one of the strategies to fight the coronavirus pandemic has been to place infected people with mild or no symptoms in hotels while they recover in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Rather than pass the virus to their families at home, they spend time with other patients going through the same ordeal.

In Israel, one hotel, the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem, became a testbed for Middle East peace with secular and religious Jews mixing with Arabs. Everyone got along and even enjoyed their time together. A comedian joked that people may have licked park benches to get COVID-19 so they could come to the hotel.

The most symbolic and hopeful moment of coexistence may have been when residents removed a barrier erected by the hotel to separate between the observant and non-observant Passover Seders in the ballroom. People may have had different ways of celebrating the holiday, but they wanted to do it together, and so they broke down the wall keeping them apart.

The story of “Hotel Corona” is pretty inspiring, and a reminder that we are only as isolated as we choose to be. The structures of our society often keep us confined to our neighborhoods and institutions, where we are deeply segregated. Only when we are thrown into a situation where we can’t escape to our separate corners do we actually figure out ways to make coexistence work.

How ironic that Israel’s isolation program had the opposite effect of bringing people together. In America we have largely avoided a system of using hotels or dorms to pull people out of their homes and quarantine mild or asymptomatic COVID patients. Perhaps we missed an opportunity for some cross cultural learning, as well as causing more cases of the disease because those with COVID gave it to their families as they recovered at home.

As states and communities begin to reopen, a friend of mine reminded me that nothing has changed since March. What he meant was that there is still no vaccine and no herd immunity. But I do think how we respond to the virus has changed. We used the blunt instrument of social distancing to slow down the spread. Now we use screening, masks and other strategies to reduce the risk.

There undoubtedly will be increases of cases of COVID as society begins to open up, but unlike in March, we should be able to contain the outbreaks with the more efficient tools of testing, tracing and isolating. Whether these tools are effective depends on the strategies created by state and local authorities.

I have not heard of any plans to use hotels for isolation. If the idea is that people exposed to COVID in second waves will just go home, we might be missing a great chance to stop the spread of the virus while furthering the spread of cooperation and multicultural understanding.

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