When is quarantine not quarantine?

So you’re in lockdown. How’s your quarantine going?

That was a trick question.

Why? Because you may be in lockdown but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in quarantine.

“Ah,” you say. “That’s because we’re self-isolating.”

Again, not necessarily.

“Ah,” you say again (but louder this time). “We are practising social distancing.”

Yes. You are practising social distancing. Or, at any rate, judging by the way people currently recoil from one another as if repulsed when they pass each other on the pavement (see my post discussing this), I expect that you, too, are practising social distancing.

What difference between quarantine, isolation and social distancing?

Let’s start with the difference between quarantine and isolation (or self-isolation), because those are the confusing ones. There must be a difference, otherwise you wouldn’t have two terms. And you wouldn’t have sentences like this:

The key to success has been a large, well-organized testing program, combined with extensive efforts to isolate infected people and trace and quarantine their contacts.”

I thought I knew what the difference was, but when I challenged myself to define it clearly, I found I couldn’t. Isn’t it odd how we can be so confident of the knowledge that we turn out not to have? So I looked it up. And now it irks me to see the two terms being confused. Here’s the difference, so now you too can be irked. (But first: do you know the difference between them?)

You get isolated – or self-isolate – when you are infected. You are sealed off from others so that you don’t transmit the infection and you stay there until you stop being infectious.

You get quarantined if you don’t know whether you are infected. You stay isolated for the time that the disease takes to incubate, waiting to see if you develop symptoms.

That is why that sentence above says “…isolate infected people and trace and quarantine their contacts.” The infected people are isolated and their contacts, who may or may not be infected, get quarantined to find out if they are.

That just leaves:

Keeping a distance from people. Or, like, leaping into the road into the path of a passing car to avoid coming too close to someone else on the pavement. But you already knew that.

How long are the coronavirus quarantine and isolation periods?

The coronavirus incubation period is 5-14 days, so quarantine for it needs to be two weeks.

For confirmed infections, the World Health Organization recommends self-isolating for two weeks. (The UK government recommends one week, but hey-ho.)

So my point is:

We’ve been in lockdown for a month and a half now, so assuming we’ve been sealed up at home during that time, our self-isolation and quarantine period has expired (even if we did both quarantine and self-isolation, one after the other), so we are no longer doing either; we are just Being At Home.

And the fact is, most of us haven’t been sealed up at home the whole time. We may be spending a lot of time at home but we’re still going out to do things like grocery shopping and walking dogs and, I don’t know, taking the bins out. And going to – wherever all those people in their cars are so busy going to. And sitting by the Thames enjoying the sunshine. (And looking for coffee. I was by the Thames on a legitimate exercise foray the other day and some guy walked past in a fidgety sort of way and burst out in tones of desperation as he approached: “Do you know if there’s a coffee shop open around here?!”) So we’re not in quarantine or in self-isolation and often we’re not even being at home. We are perhaps practising social distancing, but that’s all we’re doing.

So all the articles being thrown around at the moment about “cool quarantine projects” and “things people never knew about their spouses until they were quarantined together” and “quarantine haircut fails” may be interesting and occasionally hilarious, but their titles need to be changed.

I know this was a sanctimonious post. Sorry. I just had to get it out of my system.

9 thoughts on “When is quarantine not quarantine?

  1. Well, I’m very glad that you DID let it out of your system. Because now I no longer have to consider whether I’ve been ‘self-isolating’ OR ‘quarantining’ OR ‘being at home’.

    I knew that I WAS ‘being at home’ (because every time I turned my head, all I saw was ‘home’) and that was very intentional. But now I know that I was, at the same time, self-isolating and quarantining – even if these weren’t intentional.

    So, thanks for the clarification – in your usual uncompromising and systematic way.


  2. The coffee guy, so funny! Speaks to how desperate people are at the moment. Imagine how confusing the new messaging will be – ‘stay alert’!


  3. *although I’ve heard that there is a similar amount of confusion about these terms as well (and i cannot type anything today due to clumsy texting skills so I’m having to split this into two comments! Sorry). 😆


    1. I’ve just looked it up. Lockdown and shelter in place both refer to staying indoors in response to a threat outside, but in the case of lockdown the threat takes the form of someone shooting (so you would look for a room with no windows and would avoid making yourself visible) while shelter in place is in response to extreme weather or to chemical, biological or radiological contamination released into the environment (in which case you would also need to seal gaps under doors, air vents, etc.). Both terms have been adopted, in a relaxed sort of way, for the current pandemic, although, based on the definition above, shelter in place might be more appropriate.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s interesting. I think they often use shelter in place in the states. When my brother started using it months ago, i had to ask him what he was talking about! Now it’s all so normal. A proper dictionary for CoVid terms really should be something we consider making (and hopefully all the trumpisms will be left out)!


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