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Protecting civil liberties in a time of COVID-19

  • 10 March 2020
Fears and anxieties are being noted across numerous countries in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. There have been runs on necessaries and medical supplies, including heists of toilet paper. Mob purchasing behaviour and general reaction to minimising the risk of transmission, has given authorities pause for concern. The spectre of a broader social breakdown is being considered.

What these points ignore is that authorities can also be fearful, paranoid at the unruly nature of their subjects. Public health emergencies have been declared in various countries and while these are deemed necessary, they come with the exercise of broad, muscular powers. On January 30, the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II formally declared a public health emergency to the increased cases of 2019 (COVID-19) cases in the United States and more globally.

A sense of this can be gathered from the views of Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter. Porter is eyeing, in particular, the 2015 Biosecurity Act. The Act is intended to manage biosecurity threats posed against human, animal and plant health. Such a risk is defined as one involving the likelihood of disease spreading in Australian territory or one having the potential to cause harm to human health and/or economic consequences.

The Act establishes a bureaucratic structure intended to designate and respond to the threat. A disease may be deemed a ‘listed human disease’ by the director of human biosecurity, in consultation with chief medical officers in the states and territories. COVID-19 has proven to be virulent enough to be listed as such.

On the 3rd of March, Porter received some encouragement from Australia’s chief health officers, with suggestions that the public be subject to ‘social distancing’ restrictions. Porter, however, wanted to be more adventurous, considering the potential use of powers to prevent people from attending mass gatherings, forcibly detain individuals and decontaminate set persons.

These powers include a smorgasbord of ‘human biosecurity control orders’ which might involve a compulsion to make a person disclose contact information and health samples, restrict behaviour, undergo various interventions designed to minimise risk and accept isolation for periods of time.


'The discretionary scope granted officials in the Biosecurity Act is disconcertingly broad. The director, for instance, has powers to designate certain areas ‘human health response zones’. This is a broad power that permits the restriction of movement into and out of the zone in question under pain of a fine.'  

The Attorney-General could not help but