Quarantine is not a new strategy in America. As our colleague Andre M. Perry, Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey, and several others have pointed out, our nation’s go-to approach for “solving” social problems has long been spatial segregation and boundary drawing, from redlining, to racist urban planning, to concentrating health hazards in poor neighborhoods.
A more granular examination of our policies of separation reveals that they have also been used to keep the most vulnerable populations within communities in crisis. The ways in which we’ve quarantined these groups in ordinary times—from those without a permanent home to those in the criminal justice system—provide the most potent illustration. Now, as these systems, including our jails, prisons, and homeless shelters, crack under new pressure from COVID-19, they present the most obvious indication that further isolation will not see us through long-term recovery.
As COVID-19 starkly exposes the frailties of our health, welfare, and justice systems, there is an opportunity—and imperative—to restructure them after the pandemic subsides.