Salus populi suprema lex esto (the health of the people should be the supreme law), the often-quoted Cicero saying, embodies the classic tension between public health imperatives and individual freedom. This tension has been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has posed complicated legal, ethical, and enforcement dilemmas. Pandemic mandates have implications on human rights at the individual and public levels. Moreover, pandemic mandates impact politics, finance, and religious rituals.
The legal imperative
To begin with the rudiments, responses to pandemics, as in the case of Covid-19, may take the form of quarantines, social distancing, compulsory business closures, masking, and vaccine mandates. Public health imperatives permit vaccination and other prohibitive directives. These restrictions infringe on people’s privacy in the form of surveillance, mandatory declarations of health status, and compulsory testing. The health measures limit freedom of movement. From a scientific standpoint, vaccine mandates accelerate the vaccination rates and coverage. In contrast, from a human rights perspective, pandemic mandates constrain the freedom of people to make their own decisions regarding their health.
The legal tension between public health measures versus individual freedoms is a recurring public policy dilemma requiring many levels to consider the tradeoff. Legal imperatives uphold the legitimacy of the use of coercion to ensure compliance with health measures to control the pandemic. Every state has the primary duty to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights to its own population. Pandemics pose grave and sustained threats to the right to life, to health, to freedom of movement, to religious practices, and to privacy. As stipulated in the International Health Regulations (IHR), all public health measures in response to pandemics need to be explicitly anchored in human rights values and standards.