Are Quarantines a Proportionate Response to the Coronavirus?

“Are quarantines a proportionate response to the threat that COVID-9 poses in the United States? “I don’t think that we have seen enough proof, in any cases, that quarantine is necessary for this particular virus,” bioethicist Kelly Hills told Business Insider last month. “It doesn’t meet what we would consider the minimum standards necessary for violating somebody’s civil rights.”

In a Journal of the American Association commentary published last month, bioethicists Lawrence Gostin and James Hodge argued that “quarantines of passengers arriving from mainland China appear excessive and are inconsistent with available epidemiologic data.” They noted that “thousands of US residents who have returned from China are already sheltering at home,” adding that “home quarantine orders are lawful, effective, and more respectful of individual rights to liberty and privacy than restrictive, off-site measures.”

The Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh argues that “extreme options like travel and immigration bans” would be more expensive than can be justified based on what we currently know about COVID-9. “The cheapest and most effective way to combat the transmission of flu-type viruses is proper hand hygiene,” he notes, recommending increased use of hand sanitizers, especially at airports and nursing homes.

Nowaresteh also notes that mass quarantines can backfire. “It’s difficult to know who is sick and who is not, so quarantines end up locking many sick people in with many healthy people,” he writes. “Healthy people and those who think they are healthy understand accurately that they would reduce their chance of becoming ill if they emigrate. By doing that, some people transmit the disease. Under some scenarios, the stricter the quarantine, the more people invest in emigrating. Sometimes, this behavioral response results in wider transmission of the disease.”

In a society that values civil liberties, forcibly detaining people who may be carrying a disease that is readily transmissible but has a relatively low case fatality rate is not a step that should be taken lightly. And assuming it can be justified, the burdens it imposes should be mitigated as much as possible.”