By Lawrence O. Gostin: For More Info, Go Here…
China waited weeks before reporting a novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus, now designated as SARS-CoV-2, “jumped” species from an animal to human in a Wuhan seafood market in early December, initiating the outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). But after a costly delay, China locked down Wuhan and wider Hubei Province, confining about 60 million people, the largest cordon sanitaire (a guarded area where no one can enter or leave) in human history. Its draconian measures were medieval, but garnered praise from WHO. In late February, the Joint WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) concluded the cordon sanitaire was effective, with Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urging all countries to learn from the China model.
The Joint Mission presented no clear evidence as to why or how the measure was effective, but it speaks volumes on how much WHO has shifted from defending freedom of movement, trade, and travel, as well as human rights. Is protecting the public’s health soon to become the overriding utilitarian consideration going forward, without balancing major infringements on human rights?
While a mass cordon sanitaire seems ill-suited to modern Western democracies, just this week Italy locked down its northern region, including Milan and Venice, restricting movement of 16 million people (a quarter of its population). The Prime Minister urged Italians to comply, to reject “furbizia,” the Italian word for cunning disregard of bureaucratic rules.
Could the United States implement a mass quarantine? Could we wall off a major city like New York or Chicago or even a smaller city or town? I think quarantining a US city would be inconceivable, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, agrees. But he cautions that, “anything is possible.”
A large-scale cordon sanitaire would face huge challenges: legal and constitutional, ethical, and logistical. From a public health perspective, there are strong reasons to believe such drastic action would backfire. I do foresee extensive quarantines and social distancing in the US, and I’ll evaluate their lawfulness and effectiveness.