The Ethics and Laws of Pandemics

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Classes Health & Health Services: Epidemic, Endemic & Pandemic Disease – Impact on Society|Law in Society: (1) Borders & Boundaries – Travel Requirements (2) Reach of Government Powers – Protection of Species & Environment (3) Security & Defense-related Law – National Security (4) Technology-driven Law – (a) Healthcare, Safety & Bioethics (b) Regulating Brave New World

Goals Challenging Problems: Humans in the World – (1) Constitution, Laws & Civics (2) Ethics (3) Humanitarian Issues (4) Terrorism, Wars & Conflicts| Intended Learning Outcomes: Instilled Citizenship Values – (1) Democratic Systems & Values (2) Express Empathy & Compassion (3) Social Responsibility (4) Societal Influence & Political World|CTEs & Disciplines: (1) Government & Public Administration (2) Health Services (3) Human Services (4) Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security


There is no one-size fits all ethical framework for preparing for or responding to a world-wide pandemic. A severe pandemic has the potential to cripple normal business operations, put thousands of people out of work, and threaten the health and lives of millions. Many ethical considerations arise, including the potential rationing of care, food and other scare resources; the potential imposition of quarantines and whether such measure should be mandatory or voluntary; as well as the scope of any  quarantines imposed. In the case of quarantines, individual states have enacted laws governing the circumstances under which quarantine measures may be invoked and governors have issued executive orders with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic. These issues pit fundamental rights of individual freedoms against the need to protect the public health.

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Pandemics & The Ethics of Mandatory & Voluntary Interventions

One of the greatest challenges for policymakers is to accurately determine during a pandemic unfolding in real time whether Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPI) such as social distancing and quarantine, meet the principle of proportionality—that the restrictions on individual liberties incurred by the NPI do not exceed what is needed to respond to a community’s assessed risk.

Ethics Resources on Coronavirus (Covid-19)

As communities across the world work to navigate the pandemic, The Hastings Center has assembled ethics resources for responding to novel coronavirus Covid-19. We are updating this hub throughout the crisis.


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Self Isolation Orders Pit Civil Liberties Against Public Good

Orders of health, state and municipal officials to “shelter in place” during the coronavirus pandemic, though well-meaning, raise constitutional questions – balancing individual civil liberties against the need to protect public health. While there is little question that those who have tested positive or been exposed to the virus may be quarantined, the constitutionality of enmasse quarantine of entire populations is less clear.


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National Conference of State Legislatures

State Quarantine & Isolation Statutes

The National Conference of State Legislatures represents the state legislatures in the states, territories and commonwealths of  the U.S. Its mission is to advance the effectiveness, independence and integrity of legislatures and to foster interstate cooperation and to facilitate the exchange of information among legislatures.

Public health quarantine and isolation are legal authorities that may be, but rarely are, implemented to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. Ill people may be isolated to protect the public by preventing exposure to infected people. Quarantine may be used to restrict the movement of well people who may have been exposed to a communicable disease until it can be determined if they are ill. This could include people who have a communicable disease but do not know it or those who may have the disease because of close contact with ill people but do not show symptoms.

This reference provides a state-by-state list and links to these laws and other authorities.


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CDC History of Quarantine

The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which mean 40 days.

The CDC has long played a  vital role in the U.S. regarding issues of quarantine.

CDC and Travel Restrictions

CDC established the Do Not Board list in June 2007, in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, to prevent commercial air travel by people who are contagious with certain diseases of public health concern, such as infectious tuberculosis and measles.  Another tool is the Public Health Lookout which prompts a public health review of a person’s infectious disease status before they are admitted into the United States. Customs and Border Protection enforces this tool.


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Covid 19 Executive Orders Tracker

Throughout the country, nearly all governors have issued orders to combat COVID-19. Executive orders have included requiring residents to stay at home, restricting gatherings of 10 or more people, or closing businesses deemed non-essential. Stay at home orders are typically the strictest and only allow residents to leave home for essential activities such as working for an essential business, buying groceries, taking care of family, seeking medical attention, and recreation.

This regularly updated resource tracks and links to each of those orders.


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American Incarceration

During WWII, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into camps, a government action that still haunts victims and their descendants. The roundups began quietly within 48 hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941. The announced purpose was to protect the West Coast. Significantly, the incarceration program got underway despite a warning; in January 1942, a naval intelligence officer in Los Angeles reported that Japanese-Americans were being perceived as a threat almost entirely “because of the physical characteristics of the people.”


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