Doctors testing all incoming passengers for swine flu upon arrival at Shanghai's Pudong airport

Loss of liberty

Do human rights go out of the window when a pandemic strikes?

When a group of Mexicans landed in China shortly after the start of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic they were in for a surprise. They were immediately placed in quarantine.

However, preventing a disease such as flu from entering a country is almost impossible: in the early stages of infection people may show few symptoms – if any. The number of places that an infection can enter a country is so large that control would be next to impossible without bringing the country to a virtual standstill.

To prevent epidemics, public health therefore typically focuses on encouraging good infection control practices among the public. Is there a case for a more coercive approach? Certainly, if severe epidemics or pandemics emerged, more draconian measures might be considered, such as preventing certain large gatherings, restricting the movement of infected people or enforcing vaccination.

Given the political consequences of such actions, they are likely to be made only after very careful consideration and when there is a substantial threat to public health.

It has been argued that part of the success in controlling SARS was because governments in the East were able to impose public restrictions rapidly and effectively. However, this virus has a different pattern of spread from influenza, being transmitted only by people who are symptomatic.

Politicians have the unenviable task of safeguarding public liberties and public health, and a country’s economic wellbeing, in situations characterised by considerable uncertainty.

Lead image:

Doctors testing all incoming passengers for swine flu upon arrival at Shanghai’s Pudong airport.

Kyle Simourd/Flickr CC BY


Questions for discussion

  • Do you think governments should be able to restrict what people can do in order to control pandemics?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Influenza special issue’ in October 2009 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Health, infection and disease, History
Influenza special issue
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development