To read this content please select one of the options below:

Chapter 2: Quarantine and Civil Liberties

Ethics and Epidemics

ISBN: 978-0-76231-311-2, eISBN: 978-1-84950-412-6

Publication date: 9 November 2006


With the recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and on-going concerns about influenza and the use of pathogenic organisms as weapons, the management of outbreaks of contagious diseases has recently taken on a new urgency (Barbera et al., 2001). However, the public health law concerning disease outbreaks is still based on the perspectives, and often the words, of the early twentieth century, when most public officials saw little option but to take a very authoritarian approach to the protection of the public's health. Over the past 40 years, the jurisprudence of involuntary non-criminal incarceration, for example for the treatment of tuberculosis or as a result of mental disease, has changed dramatically, as basic concepts of due process have been incorporated into the process of civil commitment (Gostin, Burris, & Lazzarini, 1999). There is, therefore, a pressing need to rethink the approaches traditionally taken to the control of infectious disease outbreaks to address this gap between the old assumptions of plenary power to act in the public's interests and the rights of individuals threatened with state actions (Davis & Kumar, 2003). It is a canard sometimes used to justify authoritarian actions that the public responds to emergencies by losing control and panicking; indeed it is the consensus of social scientists that people in emergency situations tend to be more cooperative and more generous toward others than they may normally be (Smith, 2001; Clarke, 2002). If anything, it is my reading of such experiences as the bomb attacks on London during World War II (Harrisson, 1989) that it is the poorly prepared and under-supported public officials who are most likely to act in unproductive and socially divisive ways during public emergencies.


Edelson, P.J. (2006), "Chapter 2: Quarantine and Civil Liberties", Balint, J., Philpott, S., Baker, R. and Strosberg, M. (Ed.) Ethics and Epidemics (Advances in Bioethics, Vol. 9), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 29-42.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited