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