PANDEMIC: Medical Martial Law and the Nuremberg Code in the Age of COVID-19
PANDEMIC: Medical Martial Law and the Nuremberg Code in the Age of COVID-19 - The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up an array of questions, yet one question that has been given little attention pertains to how much state power and suspension of civil liberties is justified in the face of a global pandemic? This is by no means a simple question to answer, but it is clear that state power in many countries has grown considerably in recent times, as governments and local authorities have declared national emergencies to fight the virus. Already, we have seen extreme measures taken and unnerving laws passed in the name of combating COVID-19, with these actions considered unthinkable only a few months ago. Just last week, the Italian region of Lombardy has called in the army to help enforce the lockdown against COVID-19. Approximately 40,000 people have now been charged with violating the lockdown in Italy. Italy serves as an example of a potential situation that could unfold in many other countries in the near future.
To be clear, I am not arguing that people should ignore the advice of governments and authorities that have imposed restrictions to contain the virus. For a limited period of time, these measures may well be justified in some sense, although each viewer and reader will have their own take on this issue. Yet there is a balance, and it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that there is so much space in this emergency, wartime period, for governments to abuse the power that they have given themselves. Denmark has also reportedly passed emergency legislation that could give authorities the power to forcibly test, treat and quarantine citizens. An earlier draft of the law would have allowed police to enter private homes without a court order, yet this section was scrapped from the legislation.
The principle of consent was affirmed in the documents that came out after the prosecution of Nazi officials at the Nuremberg trials that took place after World War II. More specifically, the trial of the United States v. Karl Brandt, also known as the Doctors Trial, where doctors were tried for war crimes before US military courts. The Nuremberg Code was one document that came out of the Doctors Trial, and set principles regarding medical ethics and standards that should be followed by doctors and researchers when conducting experiments on human subjects (Pelias 2006: 74). Consisting of 10 principles, the first principle of the Nuremberg Code is perhaps the most important. It states that “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” and goes to on state that the consent has to be competent, informed and be the product of the “free power of choice.”
Today, governments may well be justified in taking draconian steps to fight this deadly virus for a limited period of time, but in this process, we cannot lose all our basic human and civil rights permanently.
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Annas, G. J., & Grodin, M. A. (2018). Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of the Nuremberg Doctors' Trial. American journal of public health, 108(1), 10–12 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5719716/
Ben-Amos, B. (2009). [Review of the book Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor. Medicine and Power in the Third Reich]. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23(2), 313-316. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/315469.
Harvard Law School Library Nuremberg Trials Project, NMT Case 1 - U.S.A. v. Karl Brandt et al.: The Doctors' Trial https://nuremberg.law.harvard.edu/nmt_1_intro#summary
Kirk, L (13 March, 2020) Danish public employees sent home for two weeks, EU Observer https://euobserver.com/coronavirus/147714
Pelias, M. (2006). Human Subjects, Third Parties, and Informed Consent: A Brief Historical Perspective of Developments in the United States. Community Genetics, 9(2), 73-77. https://bit.ly/3bfgLAl
Reuters (20 March, 2020) Italy to use army to enforce coronavirus lockdown in worst-hit region - https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-italy-army/italy-to-use-army-to-enforce-coronavirus-lockdown-in-worst-hit-region-idUSKBN2171ZA
The Boston Globe (5 March, 2020) Coronavirus and Maine vote make case for Mass. vaccine law https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/05/opinion/coronavirus-maine-vote-make-case-mass-vaccine-law/
The Local (13 March, 2020) Denmark rushes through emergency coronavirus law https://www.thelocal.dk/20200313/denmark-passes-far-reaching-emergency-coronavirus-law
Tondo, L. (18 March, 2020) Italy charges more than 40,000 people with violating lockdown, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/italy-charges-more-than-40000-people-violating-lockdown-coronavirus
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