In response to the coronavirus crisis, China constructed not one but two new medical facilities in Wuhan in just 10 days. Between January 24 and February 3, it transformed undeveloped land into more than half a million square feet of medically equipped hospital space with 2,600 beds. From the frenzied dance of red, blue, and yellow loaders to the graceful sweep of cranes snapping prefab units into place, a time-lapse video created by the BBC condenses the modern engineering marvel into one captivating minute. It wasn’t China’s first hospital-building rodeo: During the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003, China built a 1,000-bed facility outside Beijing in one week.
But the new hospitals failed to keep the virus in check, and now dozens of communities around the world face the imperative to quarantine and treat patients at scale without proper facilities. In Kirkland, Washington, for instance, the Seattle Times reports that county executives have signed an emergency declaration “to buy a motel where patients can recover in isolation.”
In an attempt to address the tuberculosis (TB) pandemic in the early 20th century, which killed an estimated 450 Americans each day, a U.S. engineer proposed a more creative solution: quarantining the sick in floating hospitals dubbed “Aerial Sanatoria.” Though the idea was technologically far-fetched at the time, it is worth reconsidering today.
Known as the White Plague for its victims’ sickly white pallor, TB, a respiratory disease, was a leading cause of death in the United States from the country’s founding to well into the 20th century. During the height of the pandemic, and especially after scientists determined in 1882 that TB was caused by a contagious pathogen and had no cure, the sick were encouraged to attend and often forced into sanatoria, medical facilities built to isolate people with long-term illness. The sanatorium movement was driven by public health officials who wanted to contain the contagion and by…