This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
In the past week alone, the spread of COVID-19 has caused federal and state governments to take measures that would have seemed extreme just weeks earlier: shutdowns of businesses, closing of borders, and curtailing of large gatherings. By Friday, one in five Americans had been asked by state and local officials in places like California, New York, and Illinois to stay home. Under most circumstances, this might be seen as an attack on civil liberties.
Yet there are moments in history when the normal rules don’t apply, and two of Harvard’s legal experts suggest that we are now living in such a time. While Harvard Law School faculty members Charles Fried and Nancy Gertner agree that the coronavirus situation is distressing on numerous levels, both say the restriction on individual freedom is largely appropriate for the circumstance.
Beneficial Professor of Law Charles Fried characterizes this as a “black swan event,” one without modern precedent. “Most people are worrying about restrictions on meetings — that’s freedom of association. And about being made to stay in one place, which I suppose is a restriction on liberty. But none of these liberties is absolute; they can all be abrogated for compelling grounds. And in this case the compelling ground is the public health emergency.”