Department of History

Student Research Reveals Lessons of Past Quarantines

While Pennsylvania was in the midst of shelter-in-place orders to flatten the curve on COVID-19, Gina Watkins was digging into the ways the United States operated under quarantine in the past. Her research revealed that, historically, the reasoning behind quarantine orders often relied less upon science than it did upon racist and xenophobic notions about the types of people who spread disease.

Watkins, a 20-year old originally from Plainfield, New Jersey, investigated the topic as a Summer Undergraduate Research Awards (SURA) Project with the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. She was guided by faculty mentor Mari Webel, an assistant professor in the Department of History, throughout the process. SURA awards a $4,000 stipend to undergraduates to explore a range of independent research topics. Students also take part in a 12-week summer course designed to teach them to share their findings with broad audiences.

Watkins, a fourth-year student pursuing a dual degree from the Department of History and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, had a longtime interest in the history of public health that was piqued the end of last December, when China told the World Health Organization it was grappling with an unknown virus.  By the end of January, the virus had been identified as a member of the coronavirus family, begun its spread outside of China and been declared a global emergency by WHO. By the summer, Watkins began her SURA research under shelter-in-place orders in the United States.

Watkins learned quarantines in New York City and San Francisco’s Chinatown were largely fueled by racism and xenophobia rather than science. 

“The public health department hired scientists to get advice on what to do and they didn’t listen, they only listened to what the public wanted. The public said, ‘We don’t want these immigrants here, send them away.’ So the New York Public Health Department sent Russian Jewish immigrants to a small island with little to no resources and told them to stay there.”

She said public health officials didn’t fare much better in San Francisco’s Chinatown and other large cities after disease outbreaks—those cities also imposed restrictions based upon nationality. She said part of the issue is major ports on the coast of America had high immigrant populations, and outbreaks sometimes occurred as ships moved between ports. But there was little effort to determine which individuals were actually sick.

If the nation hopes to successfully limit the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is created, Watkins said it must take lessons from the past into account.

“We shouldn’t be anti-people. We should be pro-science and with this science, we should actually help people,” she said.