Established by the President of the Royal Society of Canada in April 2020, the RSC Task Force on COVID-19 was mandated to provide evidence-informed perspectives on major societal challenges in response to and recovery from COVID-19.
The Task Force established a series of Working Groups to rapidly develop Policy Briefings, with the objective of supporting policy makers with evidence to inform their decisions.
Overview of Reconciling Civil Liberties and Public Health in the Response to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges governments face in balancing civil liberties against the exigencies of public health amid the chaos of a public health emergency. Current and emerging pandemic response strategies may engage diverse rights grounded in civil liberties, including mobility rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to liberty and security of the person. As traditionally conceived, the discourses of civil rights and public health rest on opposite assumptions about the burden of proof. In the discourse of civil and political rights of the sort guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the onus rests on government to show that any limitation on rights is justified. By contrast, public health discourse centers on the precautionary principle, which holds that intrusive measures may be taken-lockdowns, for example-even in the absence of complete evidence of the benefits of the intervention or of the nature of the risk. In this report, we argue that the two principles are not so oppositional in practice. We emphasize the importance of policy agility in the COVID-19 response, ensuring that measures taken are continually supported by the best evidence and continually recalibrated to avoid unnecessary interference with civil liberties.
Authors of the Report
Colleen M. Flood, University Research Chair and Inaugural Director of the University of Ottawa Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics
Vanessa MacDonnell, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and Co-Director of the University of Ottawa Public Law Centre
Bryan Thomas, Senior Research Associate and Adjunct Professor, University of Ottawa Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics
Kumanan Wilson, Physician Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital and Bruyère Research Institute and Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa
This report has also been published in the FACETS collection of RSC Policy Briefings. The report is available here.
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