Monday, October 06, 2014

When does the need to control infectious disease (with "quarantine" or "isolation") trump civil liberties?

Danny Cevallos, legal reporter for CNN (along with Jeffrey Toobin) has an alarming op-ed on CNN, “Protecting against Ebola trumps personal liberty”, link here

Cevallos explains the difference between quarantine, which can apply to a person exposed but not showing symptoms, and isolation, which applies to a person already ill.  The state’s due process responsibilities seem surprisingly limited.  An individual is not guaranteed he can recover income or property lost to quarantine, although in Texas it seems as though some of the employers are willing to pay quarantined or monitored individuals.  (I’m not sure if being told not to leave town or got to work and to report for temperature checks twice a day but being allowed out locally falls within the legal definition of quarantine, but the practical effect is similar. )

The passengers on a flight arriving in Newark from Brussels were briefly quarantined upon arrival before being allowed to go.  

Cevallos makes a rather over-the-top analogy to zombie movies, where “infected” individuals are immediately terminated, in posing whether the state could take an infected person’s life if a circumstance were extreme enough.  I am reminded of the movie “28 Days Later” and sequels.
Really – there are other things in life where this is true, often having to do with warfare or enemy action.  

In previous posts, I've gone into the panic over AIDS in the 1980s, and the hypothetical theories that led to proposal of a draconian anti-gay bill in in 1983 (when I lived in Dallas), as well as proposals to "quarantine AIDS patients" which technically would have been isolation.  One of the worst homophobes, Paul Cameron, was quoted in the 80s as saying "Civil liberties do no good if everybody's dead." 

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) has formed a task force to examine screening protocols (story ) but the White House doesn’t think a West Africa travel bam is necessary. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has called for more extensive questioning of people from international flights (CBS NY story ) but the CDC or local health departments would have to provide the manpower.  
I put off all plans to travel to Europe until at least next spring because of all of these crises and threats.  This can’t be good news for airlines or the economy,   Body temperatures can vary within a degree all the time normally;  there's such a great threat of disruption.  

Update: Oct. 7

NPR has an important story by Linda Poon and Opheibea Quist-Arcton, "How a person can recover from Ebola," link here

Update: Oct. 8

Many news organizations report that Thomas Eric Duncan passed away at 7:50 AM Wednesday, October 8.  Generally, doctors say that the two-day delay in getting treatment (often common with patients with no health insurance) may have proved fatal.  One or two other patients seem to have less severe symptoms and we're waiting to see if milder cases are possible,    

Update: Oct. 28

Vox Media also offers a legal explanation of the concept "quarantine" and "isolation" in a piece by Julai Belluz here

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