In Arguing About Bioethics, L.O. Gostin argues that, in terms of public health, government laws take precedence over people’s individual liberties in the event of a “public health emergency” (Gostin 377). He defines a public health emergency as an “occurrence of imminent threat of an illness or health condition caused by bioterrorism or a novel or previously controlled or eradicated infectious agent or biological toxin” (377). The health threat also causes many people to have major disabilities or even die. However, why should we let an emergency happen? Aren’t there steps that we can take in order to avoid the possibility of emergency as best as we can? While preventative medicine is definitely an admirable option, we can take even smaller steps and put public health into our own hands by altering our health habits and behaviors.
The concept of public health emergencies made me think of the movie, Contagion (here is the movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sYSyuuLk5g). In this movie, a lethal virus spreads extremely quickly and, soon enough, becomes a pandemic. The virus spreads so rapidly because people do not wash their hands, people touch their faces so many times per day, people don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze, and don’t participate in other sanitary behaviors. Everywhere we go we touch something that someone else has touched and we do not know if that person is sick or not. So, from this movie, we realize that people need to take responsibility for their health behaviors to protect themselves and the public.
While there are laws that override people’s individual liberties in a public health emergency, there are no laws that demand people to wash their hands or not touch their face. Obviously, there never will be. However, in order to avoid a public health emergency, we should focus not only on preventative medicine like vaccines, but alterations of our personal health habits and behaviors. Though we may believe that our personal health behaviors simply benefit us, we are actually benefitting the rest of the public. When a person gets sick, it is very likely that his or her family member or friend will get sick too. People touch the same things and live in close quarters so it is very likely that a virus can be transmitted. Therefore, people need to be responsible and take care of themselves because it is healthy for them and the rest of the public.
Though we may view health in terms of “public health,” it is very important that we do not undermine the power of the individual’s own choices. Again, there will never be laws that demand washing your hands every time we go to the bathroom. But, we should take into account that the doorknob of the bathroom will not have as many germs on it because we washed our hands, so then other people will not get our germs. Small decisions can prevent large outcomes that we would want to avoid. Therefore, rather than focusing on the preparation for a public health emergency, or even focusing on preventative medicine, we should focus on our behaviors that will increase the likelihood that we will stay healthy.
Gostin, L.O. “Public Health Law in an Age of Terrorism: Rethinking Individual Rights
and Common Goods.” Arguing about bioethics. London: Routledge, 2012. 374-