chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
June 14, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Preparing for the Future: Law for the Next Pandemic

by Claire L. Parins

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first global health crisis of our lifetimes, and it won’t be the last. As habitat loss forces wildlife and humans to live together, pathogenic crossovers will rise. Insect-borne diseases, like Zika, will attack new populations. While physicians and public health experts have worked together to prevent disease and find therapies to protect us, lawyers have also been called on to rethink how the law can better protect our basic human rights in times of a pandemic.

For the first year of lockdown, the world was in survival mode, and organizations such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations (UN) at first took the lead. The UN Sustainable Development Group describes human rights as key in shaping the pandemic response and has called on all nations to consider basic human rights and how to best respond to the public health emergency. It is now time for countries, states, and localities to plan for the longer-term consequences the pandemic has caused.

The costs of mass lockdowns have been enormous. Lockdowns and mask mandates were certainly instituted by the desire to slow death, but they have also challenged our movement. As borders were locked down, the service industry came to a standstill. Schools had to convert to online teaching with no notice. When vaccines were discovered and then tested, governments were then tasked with finding efficient and equitable ways to distribute them. How we move forward may perhaps be the hardest part. Now that vaccines have stemmed the tsunami of new cases, it is time to consider the broader impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our health care systems, our workplaces, our institutions, and, importantly, our laws.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our health care systems, our workplaces, our institutions, and, importantly, our laws.

During COVID-19, requests for help with housing have skyrocketed. Our poorest have had to face on an exacerbated scale eviction, unemployment, domestic violence, and medical debt. Lockdowns were just one facet of the pandemic’s overall sway on billions of lives. Millions were unemployed or furloughed, while many other workers, considered essential, were expected to show up and expose themselves to potential illness day after day. Working mothers were disproportionately challenged because much of the burden of taking care of children fell on them when schools closed. Millions more were and still are food and housing insecure.

We are in the throes of understanding how the current COVID-19 crisis will affect our most vulnerable citizens in the long term. But this much is known: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our health care systems, our workplaces, our institutions, and, importantly, our laws.

We must explore the challenges around creating long-term incentives for social distancing and the public health significance of programs such as unemployment insurance and a universal basic income. We must also address issues around childhood education, fair housing, and food security. The pandemic has opened up the need for the government and other advocates to respond to a vast array of economic and financial crises, including the role of bankruptcy proceedings and bailouts.

How we move forward in the months and years ahead will shape us as a nation in a way not seen since World War II. Respecting human rights will help us better survive this pandemic and those that will surely come after. Advocates and policymakers must work together to mitigate the havoc that will be caused by future pandemics. We must ensure access to basic health care, education that has been adapted to work online, and relief for food and housing shortages. We need to anticipate who in our communities will suffer most and ask why and what can be done about it. If we focus on what we have learned from COVID-19, we can emerge from this crisis with a more equitable and sustainable society.

As attorneys, it is up to us to start conversations about what lessons to carry forward. We must prepare for what is to come and talk about the deficiencies in our laws. By examining the pandemic’s effects on our most vulnerable, we can create new laws and policies that help all of us. By working together, we can propose remedies and help policymakers focus their time and energy where they are needed most. Many creative legal solutions will be born out of our year in lockdown. Advocates are in a particularly strong position to create a more resilient society. We can be more ready for the next pandemic.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Claire L. Parins

Director of Academic Publications, University of Chicago Law School

Claire L. Parins is the director of Academic Publications at the University of Chicago Law School and is on the Human Rights editorial board. She can be reached at [email protected].