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Life Under the Yellow Flag

So after more than two years, more than 80 million cases in the country, and in spite of being fully vaxxed and boosted, my luck finally ran out and I tested positive for Covid about a week and a half ago. Thankfully, my symptoms have been mild so that the biggest impact for me has been the cancelled events and missed activities and a greater sense of isolation as a result of my self-quarantine. Much has been written over the past couple of years about the consequences of social isolation, but there’s nothing like a few days of being stuck in your basement to focus your attention on it.

The Bible contains one of the earliest known narratives about isolating sick people, most likely individuals who were suffering from Leprosy, a skin disease that marked a person for isolation for their entire life, pretty hard to imagine!

The priest is to examine him, and if the swollen sore on his head or forehead is reddish-white like a defiling skin disease, the man is diseased and is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean because of the sore on his head. Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp. --Leviticus 43-46

In medieval Europe during the 14th century, the plague, or Black Death as it was known by then, killed 20 million Europeans. In 1370, Venice, a major trading center, enforced a 40-day waiting period before any ship which was suspected of harboring the plague could enter the port. The 40-day waiting period became known as quarantinario, the Italian word for 40, and the name stuck.

The quarantine system was expanded in the 16th century through the introduction of bills of health. If a ship carried a clean bill, it could enter a port without quarantine. Across Western Europe, a ship subject to quarantine had to hoist the yellow flag and remain in isolation. The yellow flag soon became a dreaded symbol — it was a sign that a ship was plague-smitten and tabooed.

Jesus had a completely different approach to the “Unclean,” an approach of a healer and teacher whose actions were rooted in love and compassion.

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!” When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.” --Luke 17:11-19

Today, we know a lot more about communicable diseases than they knew in the 16th century; and we know there are times when protecting public health requires some degree of quarantining and/or social distancing.

But it strikes me that every time I turn around I see someone trying to revive a whole new round of hatred against one group or another, hoisting a new “yellow flag” using social-media or plastering it on their bumpers, hats, or t-shirts, “yellow flags” of hate that only make sense if you’re trying to isolate us from each other. I see the “yellow flags” of race, age, gender, socio-economic or educational level, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and even personal quirks, political beliefs, or looks.

Thankfully, today has been a good day as I finally tested negative. It’s a great day to haul down some yellow flags, starting with the one flying in my own basement.


Jerry Kahrs


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