Defining it as “a security measure in which those inside a building or area are required to remain confined in it for a time” and “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces”, Collins Dictionary has declared “lockdown” as the word of the year, given the rise in the usage of the term in a pandemic-ridden world.
The declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11 set into motion global restrictions on movement, congregations and travel. China, where the SARS-CoV2 virus first made its appearance, was the first country to enforce lockdown and quarantine measures as early as January. After WHO’s declaration, Italy, Albania, Bulgaria, El Salvador, Iran, Mongolia and Poland were among the first to declare a lockdown to contain the deadly virus. In India, a nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24 and continued till the end of May. Phased relaxations to lockdown protocols began from June 1.
Lockdowns of yore
While the word gained traction with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has certainly not been the first instance that the world has faced a lockdown. The Plague of Justinian, named after the emperor Justinian (AD 527-565), one of the greatest rulers of the Byzantine civilisation, marked the beginning of the end for the great empire. The king, under whom the Byzantine empire came to extend from the Middle East to western Europe, himself fell ill with the bubonic plague. Even though he survived, the disease ravaged his empire time and again. It was then that the idea of segregating the sick from the healthy first took seed, even though there was no formal policy to that effect.
It would be the Black Death (1346-1353), one of the deadliest instances of a pandemic that claimed about 25 million lives across the world, that would change the course of human history in more ways than one. The virulence of the disease would give rise to the idea of a public health policy and how to contain such diseases in case of violent outbreaks.
Writing in the 14th century, following the outbreak of the plague in Florence in 1348, Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio notes in his The Decameron (written between 1349 and 1353), how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbours’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses”; “This pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick”.
And so, Renaissance Italy would see the first version of a lockdown, when medical boards were entrusted with the decision to stop the flow of traffic in and out of cities in case of major outbreaks of contagious diseases. The board was also empowered to enforce isolation and quarantine of affected people and restrict all forms of communication between people. As with the present pandemic, in Renaissance Europe, too, it was the middle classes and the poor that were the most disadvantaged by these policies.
The idea of confinement and isolation would be further cemented in the colonial era, when enhanced mobility paved the path for trade and warfare, leading to a rapid spread of infectious diseases, such as the plague, across the world.
Lockdowns in the modern era
In November 2002, a deadly disease called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first detected in China. To stop the infection from spiralling out, the Chinese government enforced a strict lockdown in entire districts, confining people to their homes and stalling all forms of social interactions. This would form the basis of the country’s epidemic-reaction plan, that it enforced with great stringency during the ongoing pandemic. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Terrorism and nuclear disasters: Other forms of lockdown
While infectious diseases remain the most dominant cause of lockdowns, they are not the only ones. At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in India, as people reeled under the sudden announcement of the shutdown, social media was quick to point out how prolonged lockdowns have been a consistent feature of life in Kashmir, forever caught in the crossfire between insurgents and government security forces.
In fact, following the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the state faced one of the most prolonged pre-emptive security lockdowns ever, with communication blackouts and clampdowns on the use of social media.
Security-induced lockdowns first came into global focus after 9/11, when terrorists blew up the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. The US shut down its civilian airspace immediately afterwards, imposing severe restrictions on movement in New York and in Washington DC, as it launched counter-terrorism and rescue operations. The 9/11 attacks would also lead to the war against terror in Afghanistan.
Similarly, in 2015, after a series of terror attacks in Paris by the Islamic State, neighbour Belgium declared a four-day lockdown in Brussels, because of a potential terror threat and the information that the main perpetrator of the Paris attack was hiding in the city.
One of the worst nuclear disasters in history, the Chernobyl nuclear accident took place on April 26, 1986, in Pripyat, in what was then the Soviet Union. In its aftermath, as neighbouring areas of the nuclear plant became contaminated by radioactive particles and people began to fall ill, an “Exclusion Zone” was created by the military, where lockdown was enforced and maintained for several years, with the people who called these areas home, displaced.
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