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Assessing Legal Responses to COVID-19

Public Health Law Watch Book Reviews

Assessing Legal Responses to Covid-19The field of public or population health often has received inadequate political, social, and economic attention in the past, but the advent in the year 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has thrust this previously underappreciated component of the societal universe onto center stage. In the United States and elsewhere, the law always has been a fundamental weapon (some would argue the prime tool) in the public health armamentarium. In this new publication, produced by the consortium Public Health Law Watch and available for free, 50 of the nation’s most prominent public health law scholars and activists have joined to take advantage of the current crisis to make sure the role of law and lawyers garners, nay dominates, its share of the spotlight.

Legal academicians, and a fortiori those who concentrate on public health law, almost invariably believe that the answer to every human problem is the promulgation of more voluminous and comprehensive regulation more vigorously enforced by government agencies and private litigation, with perhaps some (or much) additional government spending mixed in for good measure. Thus, it is unsurprising that the mission reflected in this book is retrospective, but constructive criticism of our political leaders for not being legally aggressive enough in anticipation of a public health emergency such as COVID-19. The scolding presented here consists of the enumeration and explanation of more than 100 exhaustively detailed recommendations for specific legal actions, for the most part of the command-and-control rule type, addressed mainly to legislatures and executive departments at the national, state, local, and tribal levels, all intended to remedy the pervasive litany of legal and political derelictions of duty that, the authors concede, generally long-predated today’s COVID-19 pandemic and present political officeholders.

Thirty-six chapters are organized into six separate thematic sections of the book: Using Government Powers to Control the Pandemic; Fulfilling Governmental Responsibility in a Federal System; Financing and Delivering Health Care; Assuring Access to Medicines and Medical Supplies; Protecting Workers and Families; and Taking on Disparities and Protecting Equal Rights. Each section begins with its own clear, concise summary of recommendations and the individual chapter texts are each supported by adequate references. Relevance to COVID-19 is the centerpiece of this project, but subject coverage extends well beyond the extensive but finite legal boundaries of the pandemic.

Whether one is sympathetic to the activist ideological orientation of this monolithic cohort of authors or the pervasive legal mandates and prohibitions they prescribe, readers interested in health law generally, and in the operational and intellectual intersection of public health and law especially, will find this publication a useful, in-depth resource on a panoply of important and timely issues demanding our careful consideration. Lawmakers and those who influence and elect or appoint them should study this book and its recommendations closely, both for any worthy immediately applicable lessons and to better prepare for the inevitable public health challenges we will confront in the future.

Marshall B. Kapp of Tallahassee is a member of The Florida Bar.