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Learning from Animal Quarantines

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Long-time friend of LGM Gabriel Rosenberg has an op-ed in the Washington Post on what we can learn from the history of animal quarantines, which is that we should pay everyone a lot of money to stay at home.

Given these stakes, when epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and Texas fever hit the U.S. cattle supply in 1884, Congress took action. Coordinating the nation’s response to veterinary illness and securing the safety of the nation’s supply of meat necessitated a federal agency. With the new BAI created, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Daniel Salmon, a veterinarian, to head it, reflecting the agency’s primary focus on the control of veterinary illness. (The bacteria salmonella, discovered by one of his assistants, is named in Salmon’s honor.)

The BAI’s powers were vast and unprecedented. The BAI claimed the immediate ability to supervise and regulate slaughterhouses connected to global and interstate trade. But Salmon also worked with state governments to craft agreements that deputized BAI agents and endowed them with powers usually reserved for state and municipal law enforcement: the right to enter private property, to declare a quarantine, to seize and kill infected and exposed animals and even to destroy any buildings that might harbor contagions.

With these powers, the BAI pursued an unprecedented approach that came to be known as “area eradication.” The BAI would stop the spread of infectious veterinary illness by eradicating disease pathogens entirely. This required establishing a quarantine zone and restricting the transportation of animals in and out of those zones. Next, they seized and killed all infected animals within the zone (and sometimes merely exposed animals, as well). Finally, they sterilized and destroyed any buildings or equipment that they believed might spread disease.

Salmon and other experts at the BAI were acutely aware of how quarantine could hurt business. They reasoned that restrictive measures alone would suffer from a fatal flaw: Farmers would resist having their stock seized and killed, since it would mean immediate financial ruin. They would do everything they could to conceal evidence of illness, to quietly treat sick animals themselves, to avoid public veterinary health officials and finally to stealthily transport their stock out of the quarantine zones and sell them in other markets. Rather than containing illness, such responses would spread disease further and could accelerate small outbreaks into devastating pandemics.

The BAI had a simple pragmatic approach that defied short term market logics: They offered to purchase sick animals at rates close to the market value of healthy animals. This encouraged farmers to voluntarily cooperate with quarantine measures rather than trying to evade them, avoiding long term catastrophic losses for the agricultural industry.

The BAI’s approach was enormously successful. In 1892, a BAI campaign successfully eradicated contagious bovine pleuropneumonia in the United States. Successful campaigns to eradicate Texas fever, hog cholera and bovine tuberculosis all came in the following decades. Congress strengthened the BAI’s hand further with the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Meanwhile, public health officials studied the BAI’s approach, and contemporary epidemiologists credit the BAI with pioneering “the precedent and mechanisms” that would lead to smallpox eradication.

This history reminds us that quarantines may be tools of medical authority, but their success and failure depends on human psychology informed by material needs. BAI experts immediately understood the inseparability of the economic and the medical precisely because the victims of disease were property. This sparked thinking that sought to align financial interest with public health priorities.

Humans cannot be reduced to their economic value, but the larger lesson applies now as well: Efforts to stabilize the “economy” must be structured to reinforce public health measures. We cannot make it a “sacrifice” to stay home under quarantine. We need to make staying home the lucrative option. If that seems too expensive to you, weigh it against the death of millions. The choice should be obvious.

It’s not a political problem that coronavirus reached the United States. Everything since that point, and really before that point as well, is a political problem. The upcoming poverty, homelessness, business failures, bankruptcies, unemployment, etc., are all political problems. They are relatively easily solved. The government simply takes care of the problems by giving people money. That this is unlikely to happen does not naturalize it. It simply shows the sharp and depressing limitations of American politics.

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