Commentary April 10, 2020

Covid-19 Crisis: Is a Showdown Between Public Health Imperatives and Civil Liberties Inevitable?

David Studdert addresses the tradeoff between basic liberties and societal health in the current coronavirus pandemic in a New England Journal of Medicine perspective.
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Stringent social-distancing rules and other restrictions aimed at addressing the Covid-19 pandemic have brought a large part of the world to a screeching halt and dramatically changed current daily life for millions of people around the globe. In the U.S. alone, the economic toll was underscored this week when the U.S. Labor Department reported that another 6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week, bringing the total number of job losses to more than 16 million over the last month. 

How long can a nation of 327 million people endure with work and schools closed, lost jobs, and people still dying from a pandemic with no proven treatment? And, as the number of new infections starts to level off, will Americans be willing to continue to adhere to such strict measures?  

In a perspective published in the April 9, 2020, issue of the New England Journal of MedicineDavid Studdert, professor in both Stanford’s law and medical schools, and Mark Hall, professor of law at Wake Forest Law School, analyze the tension between disease control priorities and basic social and economic freedoms. 

“Resistance to drastic disease-control measures is already evident. Rising infection rates and mortality, coupled with scientific uncertainty about Covid-19, should keep resentment at bay — for a while. But the status quo isn’t sustainable for months on end; public unrest will eventually become too great,” writes Studdert and Hall.

In the perspective, titled Disease Control, Civil Liberties, and Mass Testing — Calibrating Restrictions during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” the authors advocate for a graduated path back to normal that is guided by a population-wide program of disease testing and surveillance.

Read the Perspective

In ordinary times, a comprehensive program of testing, certification, and retesting would be beyond the pale. Today, it seems like a fair price to pay for safely and fairly resuming a semblance of normal life.
David M. Studdert is a leading expert in the fields of health law and empirical legal research. He explores how the legal system influences the health and well-being of populations. A prolific scholar, he has authored more than 150 articles and book chapters and his work appears frequently in leading international medical, law, and health policy publications.
David Studdert

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